History at Leicester

Crusading in the Fifteenth Century

Professor Norman Housley has recently been awarded two grants by the Leverhulme Trust for research into the Crusades and their impact on Europe in the pre-Reformation period. The grants complement one another. Together they will give substantial momentum to one of the liveliest fields of current research on the practice and evolution of crusading, which focuses on the period that followed the fall of the crusader states in Palestine and Syria.

‘Reconfiguring the crusade in the fifteenth century: goals, agencies and resonances’

In December 2012 Housley was awarded £67,358 to run an International Network of eight scholars for three years working on this subject. The network’s members will assemble at a symposium at Leicester in July 2013 to establish the programme for a collaborative volume of essays. There will be a major international conference exploring all aspects of that programme in 2014, which will generate its own volume of essays, and this will be followed by a second symposium in 2015. The network will have its own website, which will disseminate news of the network’s activities and invite comments on them in the light of other research programmes and news items.

The network facilitator is Jo Leadbetter.

Context and aim of the programme

Since the Second World War the crusades have constituted one of the most popular and intensively researched areas of medieval history. But until recently popular and scholarly attention alike focused chiefly on the crusades fought to recover or defend the Holy Land, between 1095 and 1291. The fifteenth century, when crusading was targeted at the Ottoman Turks in defence of Christian Europe, was largely neglected, despite its acknowledged significance. This is now changing, for since c. 1990 a large number of historians have directed their energies towards the study of crusading between the resolution of the Great Schism in 1417 and the outbreak of the Reformation in 1517. The research output of these individuals has been impressive in quantity and quality, and the purpose of this network is to bring a number of the most original scholars into a collaborative group. This will foster discussion, refine agendas and synergize their different areas of interest and analytical techniques. The outcome will be a much more convincing interpretation of a key period in European history, when crusaders fought not in Palestine and Syria but at locations like the Peloponnese, the western Balkans and southern Italy. As they did so the image of their Muslim foe was configured in ways that not only shaped the Christian view of Islam, but influenced the formation of a common European identity in which perceptions of freedom and civilized life sat alongside religious belief. Hence the programme's output will illuminate both the mechanisms through which resistance to the Ottoman advance was promoted, and their impact on contemporary European government, society and culture.

Key research questions


  • What religious, cultural and political considerations shaped the way the targets of crusade were chosen and represented?
  • Which individuals and groups decided on those targets, and how were their decisions reached and subsequently modified?
  • How were evolving juristic and diplomatic practices reflected in the characterization of the conflicts that were waged? In particular, what was the relationship between crusade and just war (ius ad bellum, ius in bello)?
  • How did the period’s changing religious geography, above all European overseas discoveries and the expansion of the Ottoman and Muscovite states, affect the crusade?


  • What impact did the ongoing challenge to the authority of the papacy and the reach of the Church have on crusading agency? Could crusading occur without substantial promotion and management on the part of the Church?
  • Was the practice of crusade hindered, enhanced or diversified by changes in the spheres of government and in the way wars were financed and fought?
  • How did crusading planners, lobbyists and enthusiasts view the Orthodox communities in relation to their range of goals?
  • How far did crusading shape the policies of the international Military Orders, especially the Knights of St John and the Teutonic Order? And what influence did the Orders have on the creation and development of crusading objectives?


  • In what ways did crusading influence the way contemporaries framed and projected their individual and collective identities, values and beliefs?
  • How did such radical changes as printing technology, the New Devotion and the formation of the ‘public sphere’ interact with crusading ideas and activities?
  • What was the relationship between economic activity and the practice of crusade, notably in terms of trading embargoes imposed on the enemy and the ‘sale’ of indulgences amongst the faithful?
  • How far did the projection and perception of crusade vary according to the location of exposition and reception – be it court, assembly, council, church or private residence?

‘Crusading and conciliarism, 1400-1500’

In April 2013 Housley was awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship worth £41,323 for twelve months (1 February 2014 to 31 January 2015) to work on this subject. The project will generate a monograph and a number of articles.


Scholarly interest in the crusades is flourishing, and one of the liveliest fields of current research is the employment of crusade in the fifteenth century. But the relationship between crusading and conciliarism remains neglected. The main reason is that from its origins in the eleventh century to its demise in the sixteenth, crusading enjoyed a close relationship with papal authority. The enduring strength of that relationship has relegated to the margins both the opinions that leading conciliarists held about the crusade, and the handling of crusading matters at Pisa (1409), Constance (1414-18), Pavia-Siena (1423-4), Basel (1431-49) and Ferrara-Florence (1438). In addition, historians have assumed that conciliarism had lost impetus by the time the need for a crusading revival became urgent, following the revival of Ottoman power in the 1430s. Hence researchers have focused on papal crusading programmes, notably those of Eugenius IV (1431-47) and the series of Renaissance pontiffs who succeeded him.

But the situation was not so straightforward. Irrespective of their individual or collective views on crusading, the Church fathers at the councils could not ignore it. A number of urgent problems associated with the practice were brought to their attention, and they had to construct a coherent and workable response. The council of Constance had to manage the issues thrown up by the conflict in northern Europe between Poland/Lithuania and the Teutonic Order. Heresy in Bohemia was an important item of discussion at both Constance and Basel. And the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, together with the Turkish threat that propelled the Byzantines to seek western aid, with union as its price, was the most significant topic of debate at Basel/Florence. All of these issues had complications that related to the deployment of crusade. And given the commitment of the conciliar fathers to Church reform as well as unity, they presented quandaries – especially in relation to the way indulgences were preached – that added considerably to the tensions within conciliarist thought.


Housley plans to make substantial contributions to four major areas of investigation concerning the late medieval Church and contemporary society

  • Crusading and religious reform. How far was the reform programme associated with conciliarism compatible with crusading practices as they had evolved by the early fifteenth century? It is improbable that any of the conciliar fathers seriously advocated abandoning the crusade as a corrupt institution. That would have entailed an implicit alignment with Wycliffe and Hus, whose views were condemned at Constance. It is more likely that a reformed crusade was advocated, particularly in terms of how indulgences were preached. This would accord with Birgit Studt’s demonstration that under Pope Martin V (1417-31) crusade and pastoral reform went hand in hand in the programmes pursued by the series of legates despatched to Germany to implement the Church’s response to the Hussites.
  • Information gathering, debate and decision-making. The changing political discourse of fifteenth-century Europe is currently attracting attention, and the ways in which information gathering and debates about crusading were managed by the conciliar fathers will illuminate a variety of themes. One of the greatest attractions of the conciliar period is its introduction of a period of medieval glasnost. Both discussion and decision-making became less open to view once the papacy under Eugenius IV fully recovered the exercise of power. In contrast, during the council of Constance in particular, we are offered a detailed picture of how the Church operated when its affairs were being conducted in a non-monarchical fashion.
  • The intellectual legacy of conciliarism. Nicholas of Cusa (1400/01-1464) and Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (1405-64) reached maturity at a time when conciliarist thinking still cast a powerful spell, and in their later views about reform — in Church and empire alike — and crusade we witness the optimism and panache that had characterized conciliarism at its height entering a new phase of intellectual development.
  • The political legacy of conciliarism. The focus here will be on the ‘post-conciliar’ phase of lobbying (1449-c. 1500), when the threat to organize a general council for the alleged benefit of a crusade was persistently used by Europe’s great powers, especially France, in their diplomatic struggles with Rome.

Reconfiguring the Crusade in the Fifteenth Century - goals, agencies and resonances

Leverhulme Trust International Network

Professor Norman Housley

‘Reconfiguring the Crusade’ is an international network of scholars who all research on the practice and impact of Crusading in the fifteenth century. Between July 2013 and October 2015 we have been holding a series of meetings from which publications will result, and this site will act as a forum for our discussions, and an information point for our planned activities and those of groups researching in cognate areas.

We welcome engagement with anyone who is interested in Crusading, the spectrum of diplomatic, intellectual and cultural exchanges between the Ottoman Sultanate and the states of Renaissance Europe, and interfaith relations generally in the Middle Ages.

Please feel free to contact Professor Norman Housley.

Or read the blog - 'The Cross and the Crescent'.

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