Trip to London Museums

Here, students on the ‘Violence and Devotion in the Crusading World’ Special Subject module report on their trip to the British Museum, the Museum of the Order of St John, and a public lecture given by Dr William Purkis as part of the AHRC-funded project Bearers of the Cross: Material Religion in the Crusading World, 1095–c.1300. The trip was led by Dr Beth Spacey.

‘The Special Subject module covered several aspects of the crusading movement, as well as its significance and evolution in the central Middle Ages. It has been particularly concerned with understanding the motivations of crusaders. The overarching theme of the module was the link between violence and devotion in the crusading ideology. A wide array of written sources was studied, such as chronicles, letters, sermons, miracle collections, and charters. This trip to the British Museum and the Museum of the Order of St John complemented the study of the crusading movement by presenting its material culture, which reflected the devotional aspect of the crusades already visible in the written sources.’

– Anaïs Gaillard (BA Ancient and Medieval History)

The British Museum

‘We started the day at the British Museum where we, predictably, made a beeline for the exhibition on Medieval Europe. Whilst we all felt that the importance of medieval history, especially the crusade movement, merited a bigger portion of the museum, there was nevertheless an abundance of captivating and relevant artefacts on display. One particularly fun piece was a copper aquamanile in the shape of a mounted knight (below). Aside from this, there were objects relevant to our course such as the depictions of Richard I of England and Saladin. The floor tiles pictured below show the two leaders in direct combat, with Richard gallantly spearing Saladin, despite the fact that the two never actually met. Such a depiction highlights that contemporary attitudes to crusading were positive, as discussed by Dr William Purkis in his evening lecture, and even nominally unsuccessful leaders like Richard were glorified.

Another eye-catching piece was the tiny pilgrim flask (ampulla), probably designed to be worn as pendant containing oil sanctified as a contact relic. This flask was likely made in Jerusalem and displays two saints associated with martial endeavour; St George and St Demetrius. This object reminded us of the strong associations between the crusading movement and pilgrimage, and the fact that contemporaries thought of crusaders as pilgrims journeying to see relics and the Holy Places as much as warriors waging a just war. By this point in the day St George was becoming a theme as he popped up on objects such as the excellent Byzantine-style icon from Russia below as well as coins at both the British Museum and at our afternoon destination; the Museum of the Order of St John.’

– Will Munson (BA War Studies)

Icon of St George known as ‘The Black George’, c. 1400-50, Northern Russia.

The Museum of the Order of St John

‘After arriving we had an object handling session where we examined a variety of objects relating to the Crusades and the Order. The first item was a fourteenth-century bread stamp bearing the 8-pointed star of the Order of St John (below). The stamp, found in Cyprus, was used for either marking bread for communion, or simply as an identifying mark for loaves. The second item was a floor tile excavated from the Church of St John, featuring a less common design of what appears to be a goblin. A quick browse through the Bearers of the Cross database shows the usual geometric designs of similar tiles. A plaster cast of the seal matrix of the Temple at Bristol (below) shows the Agnes Dei, or Lamb of God; a common theme of the Order, as it also appears on the ceiling of the gatehouse at the entrance to the museum. However, the lamb in this case more resembles a horse than a lamb. We then handled a selection of different coins relating to the Crusader States including a Tripoli gold dinar (1187-1260) with Arabic inscriptions and the image of a Cross. After 1200 the Pope requested Christian imagery on coinage in addition to the Islamic inscription, as this was Christian coinage, even with the Arabic inscription. The coin of Tancred (1101-12) also shows how Western and Eastern cultures mixed in the Holy Land under the crusaders, depicting Tancred as wearing a turban and holding his sword. St George is shown spearing the dragon on the coin of Roger of Salerno (1112-19), although it is rather difficult to identify the figure as St. George. These coins show how Christian rulers would depict themselves or important saints on coinage, in contrast to the Islamic influence on the Tripoli dinar with textual inscriptions only.

The final and most impressive object was the seventeenth-century model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, made in the Holy Land with local wood and inlaid with ivory, ebony and mother of pearl. The museum also has two larger and more detailed models of the Holy Sepulchre, purchased as luxurious souvenirs by pilgrims, demonstrating fantastic craftsmanship and attention to detail. We handled the smallest model, which included many removable parts including a detachable tower, dome, cupola and roof panels. This opens up the whole model allowing for the intricate decoration inside to be explored, with inner staircases, columns, and chambers all providing an accurate representation of the church in the seventeenth century, showing the renovations undertaken by the crusaders themselves. The model therefore depicts the church the crusaders knew. The models demonstrate how pilgrimages to Jerusalem and interest in the religious landmarks of the city continued even after the crusades had ceased, whilst also serving as an educational tool.

The most detailed and extravagant of the Holy Sepulchre models is on display in the museum itself, which provides an overview of the Order of St John’s history. The inception of the Hospitallers during the early twelfth century in Jerusalem is presented, through the moves to Rhodes and Malta, before St John’s ambulance in the twentieth century is chronicled. The imagery of ‘crusading knights’ is present on recruitment posters, highlighting the importance of the medieval crusades on the identity of the current Order as well as its historical longevity.’

– Emma Birch (BA History and Political Science)


‘Crypt’ Tour and Public Lecture: Crusade in Europe

‘After browsing the displays in the Museum of the Order of St John, we went on a tour of their ‘crypt’. This space, though referred to as the crypt, is actually the old priory, having sunk below ground over the past nine hundred years. As well as a brief talk on the origins of the order and its holdings in England, we were able to view the crypt and look at a few of its attractions, including a piece of the Church of the Nativity from Bethlehem and the skeletal effigy of William Weston, the last Prior of the Order before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, who was lovingly referred to as Bill.

After a short break, we attended a lecture by Dr William Purkis on the ‘Home Front’ of the crusading movement. He discussed modern uses of the word ‘crusade’ from Eisenhower to Obama, with special reference to the Order of St John, before taking apart modern statements on the support for the Crusades. He highlighted that there was widespread popular support for the Crusades, contrary to claims by modern individuals. After this he answered a variety of difficult historiographical questions from the audience before bringing the lecture to a close. Following a rush through London’s tube stations, we returned to Birmingham, intellectually enriched by our experience.’

– Matt Tyler (BA Ancient and Medieval History)





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