The State of Crusade Studies: An Interview with Dr. Helen J. Nicholson

Among modern crusade historians, few are as respected as Helen J. Nicholson. Indeed, as Professor of Medieval History at Cardiff University, where she has taught for more than twenty years and served as the head of the Department of History from 2012-2015, Helen has established herself among the top tier of the world’s crusade historians through no less than twenty-one books she has authored or edited on the crusades or the military orders. In addition, she has also authored nearly seventy scholarly articles or essays in peer reviewed journals or edited volumes and has served on review committees for numerous academic presses or journals. This is all in addition to her often active participation and leadership in many scholarly societies to include, of course, the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East.

Helen certainly has an academic background that would have suggested she was primed for success as a crusade historian early in her career. From 1979–82 she studied at the prestigious Oxford University, where she earned her BA in Ancient and Medieval History (1st class hons.), which she then converted to a MA in 1986. Then, from 1986 to 1989, she worked on her doctorate at the University of Leicester under the direction of the renowned crusade historian Norman Housley. She continued to teach part time at Leicester until transitioning into her position at Cardiff University in 1994 where she has remained until the present.


Image: Helen in July 1990, nearly nine months pregnant with her son Gawain, and about to receive her PhD from the University of Leicester.

Averaging nearly one published book per year during her time at Cardiff, in addition to many scholarly articles, Helen has demonstrated extraordinary scholarly output always at the highest levels of quality. Her efforts as a historian reflect those of someone who loves her craft, and sees it as a vocation rather than simply a job. She seems to live it. Indeed, even with all of her books, articles, invited talks, conference talks, and committees she serves on, Helen has always made herself available to junior scholars, students, or members of the general public seeking help on matters related to her many areas of expertise. I know this first hand, as I have had the pleasure of corresponding with her as both a student and a junior scholar for years now. Somehow, as busy as she is, she always found the time to respond to my queries or questions, and did so with cheer and substance.


I am not alone in my experiences with Helen or my praise for her extensive contributions to the field of crusade history, as I have spoken with many in our field who have made the same observations. In preparing for this profile of Helen, knowing in advance of Helen’s popularity among our peers, I reached out to four crusade historians to see if they might offer a few lines on Helen and her career that I could quote here. All four of them enthusiastically agreed.

Crusade historian Alfred J. Andrea, Professor Emeritus of the University of Vermont and former President of the World History Association, noted “Helen Nicholson is amazing. She is a scholar’s scholar who practices the craft of history at the highest level, but she also has the ability to communicate effectively with a broad audience.”

Alfred is right to highlight not only Helen’s scholarship and popularity among her peers as a “scholar’s scholar,” but also her ability to communicate with a broad or popular audience. Helen is one of the few senior crusade historians to have an active presence online and on social media. Helen has contributed to online projects like ORB: Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies, but also posted much online on her own, to include scholarly translations of medieval texts and other essays. As a result of such accessibility to her materials, large numbers of students and popular audiences have access to quality resources on the crusades and military orders. Most senior crusade historians do not engage the public in such a way, further making Helen unique among her peers and a popular scholar for those seeking information online.


Image: Helen with speakers at the sessions she was involved with at Kal’ in 2013. From the back: Jochen Burgtorf, Phil Handyside, Jyri Hasecker (Westfaelische Wilhelms-Univ. Muenster, Germany). Across the front: Christie Majoros, Helen Nicholson, Dr Theresa M. Vann, Betty Binysh.

Crusade historian Cecilia Gaposchkin at Dartmouth College offered similar praise for Helen’s work by highlighting her status as a “giant in our field,” and noting, “I routinely send students to look up her work on the Templars (a perennial favorite for research topics).  She has that enviable ability to manage large narrative without losing track of the sources.” Cecilia further added, “Imagine my surprise at what a lovely woman she turned out to be when I finally met her!”


Image: Helen giving a paper on the Hospitallers in Wales to a local history society in Pembrokeshire, ‘Planed’ (November 6, 2010).

Similarly, crusade historian Jace Stuckey, Associate Professor at Marymount University, referred to Helen as the “ideal combination of a teacher and a scholar.” He admires how she has fostered a “strong relationship” with her students at Cardiff, but also notes “As a scholar, her range of knowledge on medieval crusading is matched only by her level of production. Her enormous output of scholarship is both inspiring and intimidating since few of us are that productive.” Jace further added, “Helen’s works on military orders in particular have become and will likely remain the standard works for students and specialist alike.”


Image: Helen with two of her PhD students, Betty Binysh and Christie Majoros, on their way to the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo (May 2013).

Yet of the four crusade historians I asked for comment, Paul F. Crawford of California University of Pennsylvania provided the most detailed response. Perhaps this is to be expected, as Paul has worked with Helen on a few significant projects, to include co-editing a book (along with Professor Jochen Burgtorf) titled The Debate on the Trial of the Templars (1307–1314) (Ashgate, 2010), as well as co-organizing sessions at the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo in May of 2007 and Leeds in July of the same year. Thus, Paul knows Helen well and has told me in the past of his admiration for both her character and abilities as a historian. Allow me to quote Paul at length.

“Helen is one of the best historians I have ever met.  She is meticulous, rigorous, and indefatigable in her search for historical truth.  Of the many things I admire about her, something near the top of the list would have to be her ability to engage successfully in informed speculation.  There is so much we don’t know about the history of the crusades and military orders, because our sources are not always as complete as we would wish.  Helen is brilliant at filling in the blanks by taking what she knows from the sources and logically extending it.  At the same time she is never confuses what is demonstrably in the sources with what is her own informed speculation. Partly because of this (but for other reasons too), Helen’s historical writing is inspiring and profound.  She makes history come to life, and she has advanced our knowledge of the military orders incalculably.  She can fairly claim to be the foremost military orders historian of our generation. I could also add that Helen is a selfless and generous friend, a professional colleague who one can trust, and who lives the Golden Rule in her own life.  It’s a privilege to have known her for some 20 years.”


Helen has obviously had an impressive career, reaching the pinnacle of crusade scholarship, and yet has also made a wonderful impact on her colleagues along the way. Not all crusade historians, in our sometimes combative field, seem capable of doing both. Obviously, I was thrilled when Helen agreed to respond to some questions providing some insights on the field of crusade studies.


Question 1: Why and how did you become a historian? Why did you decide to focus on the crusades and military orders?

In my early childhood, family holidays comprised visits to castles, abbeys and waterfalls, and (after we moved to England) Roman remains. One of the earliest family photos of me as a child shows my father holding up a two-year-old me to look out of a window at Dunluce Castle in Northern Ireland. I still remember that photo being taken – I love that castle. My little sister and I spent our summer holidays running up and down spiral staircases and exploring dark passages. But my initial interest in studying history leant more towards ancient history than medieval. Then, like many teenage girls, in my teenage years I got interested in lost causes. I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and became very interested in Richard III: my best friend’s mother was a member of the Richard III Society. Then, thanks to one of the BBC’s versions of Robin Hood (the one with Martin Potter as Robin Hood, Diane Keen as Marian, David Dixon as John and Paul Darrow as the sheriff of Nottingham – I don’t know whether it was ever shown in the USA) I got interested in the Angevins. But when I went to the University of Oxford, it was to study Ancient and Modern History and I concentrated on the Romans and early medieval history, with lots of lovely saints’ lives and fun religious sects …After I got my BA degree I couldn’t afford to stay on at Oxford, so I got a job training as a Chartered Accountant with Coopers and Lybrand. I did pass all the exams and qualified, and I did enjoy the book-keeping – and it was very interesting meeting people in many different industries – but I found the auditing very dispiriting. With my best friend’s help I learned Old French and started reading twelfth and thirteenth-century epics and Arthurian romances. I went into the city reference library and looked for primary sources on the Angevins: and found the Itinerarium peregrinorum et gesta regis Ricardi. I started translating it.

To cut a long story short: I found the problem that became the focus of my PhD. The Itinerarium praises the Templars: Militia templi quam nulla insignior (the knighthood of the Temple, none more illustrious). But the secondary authors whose books I found in the reference library claimed that by the time of the Third Crusade the Templars’ reputation was poor. Clearly this was a vast oversimplification!

The University of Leicester was advertising funded PhD scholarships, so I applied for one and was awarded funding to study twelfth and thirteenth-century attitudes towards the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights. (My translation of the Itinerarium was eventually published as Chronicle of the Third Crusade.)

Question 2: What was it like as a Ph.D. student at the University of Leicester working under the direction of the great crusade historian Norman Housley? In what ways did the experience influence the direction of your career?

Norman was a very enthusiastic and supportive supervisor. I had never studied the crusades before, but I did know a lot about the Angevins and their government, and about twelfth and thirteenth century warrior ideals, and I could read Latin and Old French fluently. I had to learn German! Norman could always suggest useful reading in the primary or secondary sources, so that I quickly learned my way around the sources. He was always interested in my research, asked pertinent questions and suggested new avenues for exploration. He encouraged me to read very widely, not just within one school of crusading thought. When I submitted written work he read it thoroughly and his comments were always constructive and helpful. He also passed on information about conferences I might like to attend, and contacted some leading scholars on my behalf.

The University of Leicester had excellent resources in Old French and Middle High German, and many of the key editions of primary sources: the Monumenta Germaniae Historica on microfilm and the Patrologia Latina in hard copy. Leicester itself has a good rail link to London, so I was able to travel to the London research libraries to use the resources there. In some ways I was spoilt at Leicester, as I came to expect easy access to all the primary sources that I needed. At Cardiff resources were far more limited.

Question 3: Over the course of your career, what do you see as the most notable changes to the field of crusade studies? How has it evolved?

When I began studying the crusades, many scholars were still using medieval chronicles as if they could be taken at face value. As a student of ancient and early medieval history I regarded all contemporary history-writing as literary exercises that required careful analysis. I am glad that scholars now generally acknowledge that even chronicles that claim to be unvarnished truth are literary constructs and have to be analysed as such.

There is now much more interest in non-western sources, and a recognition that critical editions of primary sources are required – there are no complete, critical editions of many important non-western texts.

Scholars have also realized that many of the old editions that they have been relying on are unreliable! But the works that were best known in the Middle Ages – such as Archbishop William of Tyre’s history of the kingdom of Jerusalem – survive in so many manuscripts that it is difficult and very time consuming to draw them together to produce a reliable edition that meets modern scholarly standards. My colleague Peter Edbury and his research team have been working on a modern edition of the Old French translation and continuation of William of Tyre’s history for many years now.

Over the last three decades our knowledge of crusading after 1291 has expanded considerably, and in the past few years there have been valuable studies of recruitment for fourteenth-century crusading and the involvement of merchants and naval leagues in crusading in the eastern Mediterranean during that period. It’s clear that western European society continued to be very interested in crusading long after the loss of Acre to the Mamluks in 1291. Scholars have studied how crusades were advertised, recruited and financed in the West; they have considered liturgies, and how crusades and crusaders were memorialized. There has been a lot of work on how people on each side of the divide (whatever that was, depending on the crusade) saw each other and related to each other. It’s become clear that alongside negative images each side held romanticized, positive images of the other and hoped for their conversion; and that trade continued throughout hostilities. Archaeology has continued to uncover sites related to the crusades in the Middle East – the recent excavations of Marqab and of the Hospital in Jerusalem are very exciting. But there has also been valuable archaeological work in the Iberian Peninsula and in the Baltic area, where archaeologists have traced how the Teutonic Order and its German colonists changed the environment of Prussia.

Question 4: What important work do you think scholars still need to do on the crusades? Or on the military orders? If you were at the very beginning of your career, just entering into a Ph.D. program today, what would you advise your younger self to study?

Rather than continually working over evidence that is already well known, I think we need to make new evidence available. This means new editions of texts; and for the crusades it also means editions of non-western sources that have not yet been published.

The great need in military order studies is clearer information about what sources survive and how they can be accessed. For example, the inventories and accounts relating to the Templar estates in England and Wales in 1308–13 are in the National Archives of the UK at Kew. They contain an enormous quantity of information about the Templars’ estate management and their tenants and workers, but scholars have hardly begun to exploit this material. Likewise, inventories and accounts survive in France, Spain and Italy; a few scholars have used this material, but there are resources for much more research. Likewise, a great many primary sources on the Hospitallers remain unpublished: such as a rental of Hospitaller properties in England from the first three decades of the sixteenth century, preserved in London at the British Library, Cotton MS Claudius E vi. Each rental agreement describes the property being leased: this allows us to know what buildings existed on the Hospitallers’ estates and how they were being used. Of course it isn’t practical to publish everything, but at the very least a catalogue of documents in individual archives would be useful. But there are also published primary sources that have hardly been analysed. There are two surviving reports produced for the pope by the Hospitallers in 1338, one from England and Wales and the other from Provence: they offer an enormous volume of data about Hospitaller activity, but only a few scholars have used them.

There are also some crusading expeditions which have not been explored in detail. Readers will know that there is still no scholarly study of the whole of the Third Crusade! This might be too much for a PhD thesis, but I realized recently that there is not even a scholarly study of the crusade of Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury, who died at Acre in November 1190.

A growing problem is that there has been so much research published on the crusades over the last thirty years that new scholars have problems catching up with it. Too often a young scholar will come out with a theory that they believe is new, but which in fact has been around for years – or (more embarrassingly) was exploded years ago. It’s essential to read widely and to use scholarly research resources to find out whether that shiny new theory is really so new. Modern online searches make this so easy to do!

Question 5: What is your sense of how well informed the general public is on what scholars teach about the crusades versus popular perceptions of the crusades? Do you think the internet has made the general public better informed? Or less so?

The internet has made it much easier to obtain primary sources. In 1982 I had to travel to the city reference library and call up books from the stack, which were available only during the library’s limited opening hours and could not be borrowed or photocopied. It’s now possible to access those sources online with a few clicks. However, I think it is easier to read them in hard copy than on screen!

There are a lot of readers on the internet who want to know more about the crusades and who want to be well informed about the latest research. They care about ‘getting it right’ and they’re prepared to spend a lot of time and money getting the best information.

It’s also true that not everyone is so conscientious and many of general public don’t seem to make good use of what is available: they search online for ‘Richard the Lionheart’ and forget to search for ‘Third Crusade’ (so they miss Ambroise and the Itinerarium) or they search for ‘Knights Templar’ and forget to search for ‘military orders’ (so they miss Alan Forey’s and Nick Morton’s books on the military orders). Too often the general enquirer just picks up the book that Amazon is advertising as the most popular. Because it’s easy to find anything, they don’t look further to find the research that would really answer their questions. The casual reader also looks for material that confirms their own prejudices; they just want an easy read rather than to learn something new.It’s easy to get downhearted about this, but we have to remember that there are also the enthusiasts who don’t want easy answers and really want to get to grips with the issues.

Overall, I think that the internet has helped to inform more people better.

Question 6: Why is studying the crusades important? What is the value for our modern world?

Through studying the crusades we learn about the ideals and prejudices of another human culture. But through studying these we can learn how humans think and react; what they care about, what makes them tick. What makes people join radical religious groups? (Why did people join the First Crusade?) What makes rulers launch military campaigns without adequate strategic planning? (How can their advisors talk them out of it?)

One of my students who went on to become a lawyer told me that having studied medieval Military Orders with me he had a much better idea of how the extended families whose legal affairs he now dealt with operated, and their internal dynamics. They were, he said, just like the medieval families he had studied at University.

In this sense, history is our laboratory for studying the human race.

But of course the crusades also come with an enormous quantity of cultural baggage, myth and legend, which has been used by generations of politicians/ propagandists/ rabble rousers (depending on one’s point of view) for their own ends. My own view is that as crusade historians we should counter the exaggerated myths which lead to unrealistic expectations and destroy lives. This requires us to engage with the general public through the media, the internet and so on. If we can show that the exaggerated myths are not true then we can help to unravel the past dialogues of hate.

Studying the crusades can also show us how people can live alongside different cultures, trade with them, share holy sites, and work together. This is essential knowledge in the modern world.


Addendum– (Image below) I recently had the chance to meet (face to face) and talk with Helen over the course of a couple of days at the 2017 International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, Michigan. What a pleasure!