Marxism Can Help Us Make Sense of the Medieval Crusades


The Crusades seem like a classic example of religious ideology triumphing over materialism. But a closer look shows that multiple class interests underpinned the crusading enterprise, from merchants seeking trade routes to peasants evading feudal oppression.

First Crusade: Godfrey of Bouillon (1060–1100) and the crusaders sailing toward the Holy Land. Miniature from the “Romance of Godfrey of Bouillon and Saladin,” 1337. BN, Paris, France. (Leemage / Corbis via Getty Images)

The medieval crusades have lost none of their fascination to the contemporary world, not least due to the multiple ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Some people like to see those conflicts through the misleading framework of a “clash of civilizations,” from Islamophobic agitators in Europe and the United States to the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, whose propaganda compared him to the twelfth-century general Saladin.

There is certainly an abundance of unreliable, anachronistic commentary on the Crusades in circulation today. But what really happened during Europe’s crusading age? And what was the driving force behind these adventures — religion, politics, social interests, or some blend of the three?

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