Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image and Identity

28th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 29-30, 2008

Christopher MacEvitt, Jerusalem, the Franciscans, and the Memory of the Crusades

In 1335, the Mamluk sultan allowed the Franciscans to settle in Jerusalem, a decision that was the culmination of decades of Franciscan involvement in the Muslim world.  As the custodians of the Holy Places in Palestine, the Franciscans interpreted the sacred history of the shrines for boatloads of pilgrims each year, and were the successors of the Latin monasteries and canonries that still survived in exile.  Yet the friars’ image of the Holy Land, and the Islamic world generally, was quite different than their predecessors.  While other Christians, including the survivors of the lost “crusader” kingdom, bemoaned the loss of Christian Palestine, some Franciscans viewed it as a spiritual opportunity. A group of friars visiting imprisoned Christians from Acre in Egypt, for instance, were delighted to find that the sultan gave them permission to visit whatever holy places they chose; they in turn praised him for his piety and devotion to the monastery of Mt. Sinai. The Islamic world offered fulfillment of some of the Franciscans’ greatest spiritual ambitions.  Although friars ostensibly sought to convert Muslims, the desire to preach was driven more by an expectation of martyrdom than by the hope for the salvation of individuals.  The tension between the Franciscans’ two roles in Islamic lands became obvious in 1391, when four friars in Jerusalem publicly denounced Muhammad, and were executed.  Franciscan chroniclers developed a new image of Islamic lands, centered on the Holy Land, which influenced western perceptions through the Franciscan role in pilgrimage, but also through stories of martyrdom.


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