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Getting Started with The Crusades at A Level

I have a problem with the Crusades. I struggle to cope with the number of terms, places and names of groups that crop up as soon as I start reading about the Crusades. When I was editing Jamie Byrom and Michael Riley’s book The Crusades that was the part I had most difficulty with. Did I know where Anatolia was and how it related to the Byzantine Empire? Was I completely certain that the Byzantine Empire and the Greek Christian empire were the same thing? Could I tell my Fatimids from my Abbasids? Answer ‘No’ in all cases and I kept having to go back to check and that disrupted my reading.

In my experience this is a problem for numerous students in many topics. Getting to grips with names, places and terms is essential when starting an A level unit if students don’t do so early on then they will struggle to read texts fluently (because they have to keep stopping to check) and then their confidence takes a steep fall. That’s not an exaggeration I’ve seen it happen many times at A level and degree level.

So what do we do about it? Persuading them to stick at reading and checking glossaries is important but many students will be helped by a more visual, physical approach which tackles this problem directly. Intervening in this way is the teacher’s responsibility if a problem has been identified even better, intervene before the problem becomes clear and before that confidence dip becomes a nosedive.

The three activities (in the document below) will improve understanding of the geography of the lands where the Crusades took place, the terms related to Christian groupings and thirdly the terms related to Muslim groups. It’s important to explain to students why they are doing these activities (i.e. explain to them as I’ve explained it in the paragraphs above) and getting students to think explicitly about how they learn is important in its own right.

All these activities need a little effort to set up at times you’ll feel something in common with a Blue Peter presenter - but it’s worth that effort if they help just a small number of students realise that they can get to grips with all these names and terms and then this encourages them to read more confidently.


Download the activity file and the resource file:

• Word Document (3 activities together) [ click here ]

• Resources for Activities 1 & 2 [ click here ]

And if you're unfamiliar with tabards see the explanation [ here ]

Activity 1. Can you find your way around 12th century geography?

a) Give students one minute only to look at a map of western Europe and the Middle East at the time of the Crusades e.g. pp.2-3 of Jamie Byrom and Michael Riley’s The Crusades.

b) Explain the task – working in pairs (or whatever numbers you find work with that particular class) they are going to recreate the main features of that map using cards (see cards provided below). Then give them out the seven cards labelled with the number 1 – these should be the easiest to place on a notional map.  Their task is to organize them as if on a map so building up that map they’d been looking at. They could do this on a table top or on the floor – it may help them to provide an A5 blank map. If you’re feeling really helpful you could give them an outline on a sheet of A3 to put the cards on.

c) Give out the six cards numbered with a 2 for placing on the map. This is getting trickier – anyone who gets Anatolia right should be given an A* straightaway. If they don’t know or won’t guess get them to put the cards to one side until later.

d) Now move onto the three cards numbered with a 3. This is the first trick – as Byzantium and Constantinople are the same place. This may seem superfluous but for anyone who is struggling then the physical activity of puzzling where to put them and then putting them both in the same place will help – it hammers the point into unwilling brains.

e) It’s time for the final three cards numbered with a 4. The second trick – they are all names for much the same place and with Palestine. Again this has real impact if they put them in different places and then realise they should be in the same place.

f) Give them back the maps they looked at at the beginning and get them to check and correct their maps. This is an important learning stage provided it’s done without going onto autopilot – it will help if they have to report back on what they were pleased to get right and how they got other items wrong. Keeping score of who got the most right might motivate some classes.

g) On another occasion or occasions repeat the activity but without that minute at the beginning to check a map.

The places named on the cards supplied are only one set of suggestions – you could add others. You could also change the focus and repeat the activity with a different map focussed more on Syria and Palestine so you bring in Damascus, Acre, Tyre, Tripoli, Hattin, Antioch etc. That’s a different activity and occasion – otherwise the whole thing gets too overwhelming if you try to do too much on one map.

Activity 2. Who were the Christian groups?

This is simpler and quicker but just as important as it deals with the types of Christianity that get mentioned in books – western, Latin, eastern, Greek Orthodox, Byzantine. There seem to be so many different types when in fact there’s only two so again use a set of cards to help students realise that it’s a bit simpler than may appear.

We’ve provided a simple diagram showing that the Roman Empire (think Julius Caesar, legionaries, testudos, Asterix the Gaul – it’s a long time since Year 7) split in two back in the early Middle Ages. Those two ‘halves’ have a box each in the diagram and students’ task is to place 5 cards in the boxes but which ones go in which box?

That’s all – a quick and simple task provided you know the answers! If you don’t know them, the physical task of locating 5 terms in 2 boxes will help students realize the overlaps and what they have to come to understand. It may even make them say ‘phew, it’s not as complicated as the books make it seem.’

Activity 3. Who were the Muslim groups?

I must admit (again) that I did not really understand this until I sorted out this activity. Sorting it out made me focus on who was who and what their relationships were in a way that simply reading never did. Make of that what you will – either I’m not very bright or physical activities do work with some people!

What you need (the Blue Peter bit):

• A4 cards labelled Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Jerusalem, Baghdad.

• 3 tabards – a red one labelled Abbasids, a blue one labelled Fatimids and another red one labelled Seljuk Turks. [The precise colours aren’t important so long as the Abbasids are the same colour as the Seljuk Turks]

• One paper crown labelled ‘Caliph’.

Now for the activity:

a) This is again map-based but this time you give the students a notional map. This is best done as an outline on the floor – put the place name cards on your ‘map’. You don’t have to draw an outline of countries, sea, land etc but having a real map visible on your screen will help for reference.

b) Ask one student to play the part of the Abbasid dynasty – give him/her the Abbasid tabard to wear and bring him/her onto the map to stand at Baghdad. Explain that the Abbasid dynasty were the leaders of Islam from 750 for the next 500 years. The leader was called the caliph – so give him/her the crown labelled caliph to wear. (this shows that ‘caliph’ isn’t another group of Muslims)

c) explain that the story gets a little bit more complicated – introduce another student wearing the Fatimid tabard. Explain that the Fatimids were a different group of Muslims who did not want to be ruled by the Abbasid (cue shaking of fists) and took control of Palestine (including Jerusalem) and Egypt in the 10th century. Rivalry continued into the 11th and 12th century when the Crusades took place.

d) Finally introduce the Seljuk Turks – a fierce warrior people from Asia – but also Muslims. They move into the region of Baghdad in the 1040s and forced the Abbasids to let them rule on their behalf – so let the Abbasid caliph keep his crown but sit down with the Seljuk Turk towering over him/her.

e) So now it’s clear there are three different groups of Muslims and it’s time for some questions to the students:

• what did these three groups have in common? (their religion)

• why might they struggle to unite to fight against the Crusaders? (rivalries for power)

• why are they wearing different colour tabards? (sneaky bit here – the different colours indicate that they were different groups of Muslims. The Abbasids and Seljuk Turks were Sunni Muslims, the Fatimids were Shi’ah Muslims. This adds to the potential disunity in the Muslim world. [finding out how Sunni and Shi’ah differed might be a good research task if you feel that students need to know the differences]

• and finally – who were the Saracens? Yet another term that students will come across and find potentially confusing. Answer – everyone on the map – and no-one! How do we solve that conundrum? Saracens was a name given by Crusaders to all their opponents – it doesn’t denote any one group or race and Muslims didn’t call themselves Saracens. ‘The Saracens’ therefore are the same as ‘the Franks’ which was a name given by Muslims to all their opponents during the Crusades whether they came from France, Germany, England or wherever.

f) Now do it all again – but this time ask students to act it out and explain it themselves with a different three students taking the key parts and others explaining what you explained before. They could even storyboard it on paper for consolidation.


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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Activity 1

Activity 2

Activity 3