Tag Archives: crusades

Crusades – Reedified

In returning to my Crusades research for a conference presentation I gave back in April that I have since then expanded on, I have moved from the Knights to the Assassins, a sect of Saracen followers that have a tumultuous and often misrepresented history. It has not been easy discovering information about the Assassins as so much of it is steeped in myth and legend where the Assassins have taken on a role larger than life and have through a medieval game of telephone become the ultimate enemies of Christendom. However, despite an alarming lack of resources, enough research has shown me that while they were extraordinary for various reasons, they were not the malicious force multiple (perhaps unreliable) sources make them out to be. In fact, as far as the Knights Templars and the Crusades are concerned, they were innocuous to this conflict, and even at times beneficial, as their main targets and principle enemies were other Saracen factions.

Without reiterating the history of the Assassins since multiple other sources have already for the most part done this, I will briefly state that the sect which came to be known as the Assassins was born in the 1090’s as the Ismaili movement split into two. The Nizari Ismailis, one of the two factions, became known during the Crusades as Assassins, which has now been identified quite globally among scholars as a misnomer derived from a western mispronunciation of the term “hashish,” a narcotic this particular group was known for using. So those who were known to consume “hashish” consequently became known as “hashishians,”and if you say this term followed by “assassins,” you should be able to deduce the connection. However, the newly coined pronunciation carried a far more sinister, and not altogether correct connotation as the term assassin became synonymous with murderer.

Obviously referring to an entire group of people as murderers requires at least a bit of an explanation, which can for the most part be grounded in an idea of orientalism that thrived on the “us versus them” mentality and all easterners were quickly relegated into the realm of uncultured barbarian heathens, ready to murder at the least provocation, performing myriad irrational acts of brutality. However, even that did not appease the masses of westerners who wanted to attribute logic to these seemingly unfathomable acts of violence, and thus they drew upon the connection of the assassins to hashish and came to the conclusion that the entirety of the Assassin population was operating under the influence of this narcotic, performing their work while drugged. To further this notion a supreme leader was borne,  first Hasan and then the Old Man, who were apparently dictating the Assassins’ killing sprees and obtaining unparalleled devotion from their followers through maintaining and further supplying their addiction. Essentially, by keeping them at all times high, they would continue forth not only under the influence of the drug, but under the leader’s influence as well.

Yet the answer to understanding the Assassins rests outside of these polarizing ideals where we either fully accept or reject the exaggerated accounts. Per usual, a moderate approach is best, so while the Assassins were very much real, and they did commit murders, and were associated with hashish, the most realistic image we can use to define them is of a group outside the traditional Muslim following which in itself already creates a frightening image to those who were Muslim, but even more so to outsiders who did not understand the eastern world. The Assassins dealt with hashish, but were more than likely selling it, or using it as raw material far more than consuming it as a narcotic. They murdered, but in the true understanding of Assassin, meaning high profile personalities, and certainly not in the sense of religious murders we are prone to witness today. They were extremely selective and efficient with their victims who were chosen far more often for political rather than religious reasons. Just like the Crusades were equally political and religious, so was the agenda of the Assassins who were the outcasts of the outcasts and murdered high ranking officials only when needing to demonstrate enough power to be left in peace and continue surviving in a highly competitive land where all corners of the world were converging over a single strip of earth upon which several religions were supposedly founded.

Before continuing further I have to interject with the reminder that this presentation, delivered for the Medieval Worlds in Popular Culture panel as part of the International Popular Culture Association Conference, originally drew the distinction between actual events in the Crusades, namely the Third Crusade, and the mass consumer video game, Assassin’s Creed. Should you be interested in my other preliminary findings, you may read them here and here. However, moving forward, let us remember and pause for a moment upon our video game’s hero, Desmond Miles, the face of the Assassins, who fights solely to maintain his life, wishing he would have been kept out of the Templar’s missions run by Abstergo.

Historically the Assassin’s most notable victim that undoubtedly propelled their name and legend into the western world was the Conrad of Montferrat who had substantial holdings in Jerusalem. His successor, Count Henry of Champagne, nephew to Richard the Lionhearted, was directly responsible for multiple rumors circulating in regards to the Old Man and the Assassins’ narcotic addition as his stories are said to have been told in first person where he served as an eye witness to the sect’s behavior. Here we get the beginnings of a rumor that would circulate for 900 years.

While most documented cases of Assassin activity had little to do with the Crusades, the two groups first clashed in 1106 resulting with the Assassins losing portions of their holdings. Subsequent interaction between the groups, fueled by western fears of assassination attempts lead to further removal of property from the Assassins until their holdings had been so severely depleted it rendered them practically helpless to the ire of the mongols who eradicated them.

Yet as the history of the Assassins comes to an end and a better glimpse into their past is presented (keeping in mind I am only ever so gently glossing over a far more intricate, detailed, and infinitely richer history) the question arises as to how they fit into the depictions we have of the Assassins today in popular culture. What about their past, aside from their dexterity in the act of murder, cast them in such an idolized light?

Since the beginning of this exploration into the Crusades, and the role of the Assassins is based upon understanding the popular video game Assassin’s Creed, I now need to contextualize the game within the myriad facts uncovered. No one is expecting the video game, produced for mass consumption, to conform to historical idiosyncrasies, but more interestingly, it is at the points the video game diverges that pose the most interest. In other words, why does the game vary from history in the ways that it does?

Keeping in mind the majority of the targeted audience for the game resides in the western hemisphere, in order to successfully breach the borders between the east/best dichotomy and introduce a culturally perceived enemy as the main character, the Assassins and Templars would need to receive a contextual make-over. Ironically where the video game seemingly changed the ways in which we understand the conflict between the Knights and Templars it reedified their origins – while the Assassins took center stage as the virtuous heroes of our story, so too the Templars displayed their true colors that were murky and unfavorable at best. Assassin’s Creed is not in fact a reconceptualization of history, but rather an instance in which popular culture finally got history right.


Latham, Andrew. Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and the World Order in the Age of the Crusades.

Lewis, Bernard. The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam.

Stark, Freya. The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels.

The Knight Templar, His Origin, and Role

After researching the Crusades for the past couple of weeks for an upcoming conference, and after attempting to better acquaint myself with the material by running the gamut of historical narratives on the relevant events of the twelfth century, I realize very few of my findings thus far will make their way into my presentation since information on various battles and key figures is abundantly available and doesn’t require my detailed reiteration.

So, moving forward, since an axiomatic understanding of the success associated with the Crusades is at best biased, I am instead going to use Assassin’s Creed to guide my research (recall that the the topic is Medievlism in Pop Culture, specifically the video game Assassin’s Creed).

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, here is the basic information for it, from which I will focus on the original plot that takes place in the twelfth century during the Third Crusade. I am not entirely sure if this will be the best approach, but for my purposes here I am going to once again rely on some fact finding where I situate the main characters from Assassin’s Creed, the Assassins and the Knights Templar,  into their appropriate milieux.

The Knight Templar figure should be, especially to a modern western audience, immediately recognizable. However, the chivalrous, noble knightly image we have all at some point ingrained in our head was not the only figure participating in the Crusades, and the period is marked by an onslaught of Franks from every social class, and even at times women, making their way towards the Holy Land to fight off non Christians. This was a time ripe with the ethos of fear which fueled secular ambitions for the Crusades that in turn provided the justification for violence and hostility, transforming them into a series of far less than pious endeavors. The etymology of the word “crusade” is in itself telling of how ideologies were manipulated to satisfy diverse goals. As early as when the Crusades started, the word did not exist. If language shapes our reality, or at the very least our perception of it, then the first knights deployed to the Holy Land were not embarking on anything more than a trek. The negative connotation associated with the Crusades was later fashioned once the atrocities became widespread. Even today, a crusade does not bear the implication of more than a mission or campaign, however, when stated in context of a proper noun, the Crusades take on the meaning they had developed over time, not of religious cleansing, but religious persecution.

Further, Augustinian philosophy was used to condone violent actions under very specific circumstances, especially when performing the work of God, and thus bridging  the gap between the pacifism preached in Christian doctrine and the everyday terror in the Holy Land that had now become a natural occurrence.


(Knights Templar burning at the stake, anonymous Chronicle, From the Creation of the World until 1384. Bibliotheque Municipale, Besancon, France)

By the thirteenth century the Knights Templar were no longer viewed as the heroes of Christendom, and as support for their various campaigns dwindled, they became persecuted not just in the Outremer and abroad, but also at home where they were systematically eradicated across Europe through arrest, dissolution of property, and eventual burning and hanging.

However, it was the methodology of their extinction that has cemented their existence and popularity into the modern day. Heresy charges against them were for the most part hearsay, and confessions were coerced through means of torture when the very institution which created them set out to annihilate the order as the church realized the Templars had grown to proportions beyond the control of a single body. The Templars, too, had realized their power once they began moving and acting as a single massive and autonomous entity. This, of course is an exceedingly simplified recap of events, and there was not any single factor that contributed to the Templars’ downfall. During the latter parts of their career they were at odds with numerous factions, amassing enemies at an alarming rate. Nevertheless, despite all of this, they were a considerable force, and to be so swiftly and cleanly wiped from society does not resonate very well with most sensibilities, hence the reemerging theories about their continued prosperity and  secret existence, so well executed as to claim hold on our modern imagination.

Yet, this is what I believe it is – a fancy, a whimsy of fiction where history was dredged up and re-conceptualized for entertainment purposes. I have admittedly not conducted an extensive survey of scholarship dealing with this particular facet of Templar history, but among the works I have read I remain unconvinced of the historical accuracy behind the multiple popular culture reference to hidden societies descendant from the Templars themselves. But I am not here to necessarily articulate a tangible link, and the rehashing of history serves sufficiently for my purposes. I am not arguing that there is a line of descent from the Templars, or even that there could potentially be, but simply that interest in the subject, for various reasons has remained and can function as a conduit to the past in an almost allegoric sense where by reviewing history we can learn from it, which is exactly what I argue in my Assassins Creed paper.

As the collapse of the infrastructure that supported the Templars was occurring, the logistics behind this downfall remained obscured, and its various causes are still a mystery today. However, what I find most interesting is the use of the perceived Islamic threat that was used as a catalyst for the Crusades, and how that single connecting strand still stands. It would make little sense for Templars to continue existing in a vacuum. They were called into being for a reason and can only continue so under the same pretext, thus, for the Templars to exist, so must the enemy, whether real or perceived. This brings me to the Assassins, not just within the game I working with, but within historical accounts – rendering an even more complex image, to which I will return in the next section of this.

So far, even though my argument is not yet fully formed, I am having a lot of fun position the various pieces of information as I conduct more research, and I definitely look forward to untangling some of my findings on the Assassins.

If I don’t manage to post again in the next week, Happy Holidays everyone!


Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple.

Barber, Malcolm. The Trial of the Templars.

Cowdrey, H.  “Christianity and the morality of warfare.”

Haag, Michael. Templars: History and Myth: From Solomon’s Temple To The Freemasons. 

Martin, Sean. The Knights Templar: The History & Myths of the Legendary Military Order.

Russell, Frederick. The Just War in the Middle Ages. 

The Crusades, Today

This isn’t really a post, but rather a rough sketch as I gather my ideas for the PCA/ACA conference in April where I will be presenting on the Crusades, and specifically their representation in modern pop culture. Before getting started, here is the abstract I originally submitted that the conference accepted:

The popular video game, Assassin’s Creed, is a modernized and highly embellished  built upon version of the feud between the medieval Assassins of the east the the Crusaders of the west. However, what is most noteworthy about the premise is the context in which it is used. The Crusades, ubiquitously associated with Western culture and Christianity become inverted within the video game as the players (typically westerners) take on the role of the Assassins, literally placing themselves in the role of the “other.” Large portions of the game take place in medieval milieus, notably Masyaf in Syria, a land that has had great global consequence today. This paper would like to argue that through the violence in the video game’s premise, it brokers pacifism, understanding, and tolerance.

Arguably the road towards pacifism is not a conscious undertaking the players participate in, but it nevertheless opens the line of communication between the past and present. Moreover, it familiarizes the general population with these past events, cultivating a curiosity for further research into the history behind the video game as is made apparent by the numerous websites which have sprouted up in recent years that are dedicated to separating out fact from fiction within the plot.

The medieval conflict between the Knights and Assassins in Assassin’s Creed is sufficiently distanced from the modern period to allow dissociation while nevertheless providing the impetus necessary to learn about points in history that have shaped our culture today from the perspective of another.

The video game, now a massive consumer fueled chain, focuses on three different time periods. I wont’ go into too much detail, and you can view specifics about the game here, but briefly, since I only have fifteen minutes, I will be focusing on the earliest of the time periods depicted, the twelfth century during the Third Crusade. First, the name is an arbitrary distinction – an attempt historians have made to differentiate between the various expeditions, often ignoring the various smaller skirmishes and battles taking place in between the larger endeavors. However, I too will focus on what is traditionally considered the Third Crusade, if only to narrow my research, and also to align my findings with the depictions found within Assassin’s Creed.


(Philip Augustus arriving in Palestine, Royal 16GVI f. 350v)


(Battle of Arsuf, September 7, 1191)


(Assassin’s Creed screenshot of what is supposed to be the same time period as the two above)

The historiography for the period is incredibly problematic due to the high concentration of points of view associated with the Crusades. In other words, this is not a simple “us versus them” issue where you either look at it from the Christian perspective or from that of the Saracens. Within each group there are several denominations, nationalities, and interests – not everyone was in it for spirituality, and neither sides were as unified or hostile as it may have initially appeared.

In 1095 Pope Urban II, at the Council of Clermont, launched the Crusades in an attempt to capture the Holy Land, Jerusalem. Of course travels to the Holy Land did not begin with the Crusades, and pilgrimages to Jerusalem had been documented for hundreds of years, but the political climate in the eleventh century was ripe for attempts at conquering the land in the name of the Holy Roman Church. What began as a quest for absolution from sin as Urban promised that “all who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins” (Gesta Francorum Jerusalem Expugnantium, Fulcher of Chartres),  eternal glory, and ultimately a deeper connection with Christ ended in bloody battles and terror, with Jerusalem remaining ultimately unclaimed. Yet this First Crusade paved the way for future attempts through its success at obtaining some land (parts of Jerusalem, Edessa, Antioch, and Tripoli), temples, and strongholds that would later benefit the west. With the incoming of westerners to the Eastern front, many who boasted significant wealth, the local economy improved, evident from the numerous artisans and tradesmen who migrated to the areas where palace strongholds were being erected.

More research is needed, but it seems to me that the different Crusades were depicted as episodic due to the various times of peace, and each new expedition brought a resurrection of previous Crusade sentiments, along with an upheaval to the more or less functional settlements. According to the chronicles of Fulcher of Chartres, it appears that in between the First and Second Crusades westerners were assimilating into Eastern culture and adapting their lifestyle.


(Here Byzantine emperor Nicephorus III receives a book of sermons from Saint John Chrysostom who was an archbishop of Constantinople in the mid fourth century and an important figure of the early church, and Saint Michael, depicting the mingling of cultures – BnF MS Coislin 79 folio 2v, circa 1075)

Alexander Manuscript

(Another conflation of cultures and times periods where Alexander the Great is depicted as a Byzantine Emperor and his troops are costumed like Byzantines as they receive Jewish rabbis  – Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodl. 264).

I am not yet entirely sure where I am going with this, but what is becoming more apparent the longer I research is that my findings, as I approach the time period I am most interested in,  frequently refer to the Second Crusade as a complete failure, which brings to question from whose perspective these accounts are forged. Yes, from the Christian perspective, and certainly that of the Church, this specific Crusade was an abysmal failure where land was lost, much money was spent, and little results returned, but when regarded from a Saracen perspective, the westerners were successfully pushed back, land was reclaimed, and crises were averted. How then are the Crusades categorized? Nevertheless, I am hesitant to simplify these opposing viewpoints as merely two sides of a coin, and believe there were nuanced, disparate histories simultaneously operating where there is no clear winner or loser. Further, returning to my goal for this research, in attempting to situate the game, Assassin’s Creed, in the midst of this, most western accounts must be discounted as biased, and instead the focus must rely on Saracen encounters with the perceived enemy. After all, the violent video game depends on an antagonistic perception of the volatile Knight Templar attempting to eradicate eastern heritage and steal holy land.

Before continuing any further with this I think I need to better understand how these discordant ideas can become harmonized to create a more holistic image of the Crusades. In short, how do the Crusades, from a Saracen aspect, fit into Western ideology in order to allow the game to portray it as such?


Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127, trans. Francis Rita Ryan, ed. Harold S. Fink

Hamilton, Bernard. Monastic Reform, Catharism, and the Crusades.

Hillenbrandt, Carole. The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives.

Paul, Nicholas, and Suzanne Yeager, eds. Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image, and Identity.