An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: the Crusades

As an aid to students, teachers and parents dealing with the challenges of home learning, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. Day by day, we will be sharing a bite size introduction to a historical figure, event or period – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. Today, Gombrich covers the Crusades.


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The Crusades

E. H. GombrichUnder the leadership of a French knight, Godfrey of Bouillon, a great army set off along the Danube in 1096, first to Constantinople and then on through Asia Minor towards Palestine. These knights and their followers had crosses of red material stitched to their shoulders and were called ‘crusaders’. Their aim was to liberate the land in which Christ’s cross had once stood.

When, after long years of battles and unimaginable hardships, they finally reached the walls of Jerusalem, it is said that they were so moved by the sight of the Holy City, which they knew from the Bible, that they wept and kissed the soil. Then they besieged the town. It was valiantly defended by Arab soldiers, but eventually they took it. Once inside Jerusalem, however, they behaved neither like knights nor like Christians. They massacred all the Muslims and committed hideous atrocities.

The crusaders formed the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem but because it was small and weak, far from Europe and in the midst of Muslim kingdoms, the little state was forever under attack from Arab warriors. This meant that back in England, France and Germany, priests were forever urging knights to go on new crusades. Not all of these were successful.

‘one good thing came out of the Crusades, although it wouldn’t have pleased the knights at all’

However, one good thing came out of the Crusades, although it wouldn’t have pleased the knights at all. In the distant Orient the Christians discovered Arab culture – their buildings, their sense of beauty and their learning. And within a hundred years of the First Crusade, the writings of Alexander the Great’s teacher, the books of Aristotle, were translated from Arabic into Latin and eagerly read and studied in Italy, France, Germany and England.

People were surprised to find how similar many of his teachings were to those of the Church and filled heavy Latin tomes with complicated thoughts on the subject. All that the Arabs had learnt and experienced in the course of their conquests around the world was now brought back to Europe by the crusaders. In a number of ways it was the example of those they looked on as their enemies that transformed the barbaric warriors of Europe into truly chivalrous knights.

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about the Crusades

At the time of publication, these resources were free to use (some for a limited time only, during the COVID-19 pandemic).

BBC Bitesize (KS3)
The Crusades

BBC In Our Time
Baltic Crusades

Ancient History Encyclopedia
The Crusades

History.com
How have Muslims viewed the Crusades?
Learn about the Children’s Crusade 

Khan Academy
The Crusades

Twinkl
Various resources

The Yale Blog
What Did the Crusades Ever Do For Us? – Roger Crowley

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.


A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

Discover More

The Little Histories are vivid storybook introductions for the young and old alike. Inspiring and entertaining, each short book lays out our greatest subjects in deceptively simple, engaging tones. With charming and personal insights each expert gently takes the reader from ancient times to the present through bite size chapters, ideal as bedtime reading or on the journey to work. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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