Even individuals not normally interested in medieval floor tiles may find themselves fascinated by the so-called Chertsey tiles. These figural ceramic tiles, created around 1250 CE, were unearthed at Chertsey Abbey in England. Their fine craftsmanship and appealing drawing style are impressive, and their subject is deeply meaningful – as we have recently discovered, this entire tile series depicts the crusades. Visual representations of the crusades created during the time when the Holy Land was actively occupied by crusader kingdoms; that is, c. 1100-1300 are, perhaps unexpectedly, rare, and so these tiles provide a valuable witness to a significant historical event.
Although it has only recently been recognized that the theme of the entire tile series is the crusades, It has long been known that two of the most famous tile roundels depict a duel between King Richard the Lionheart and the Sultan Saladin. This pair of roundels has been used to illustrate the crusades for many decades and in many media. These famous two roundels and their tile surround were physically reassembled by curators at the British Museum in the 1970s.
However, nearly all of the remaining tiles from this extravagant floor remain as separate, often small and broken, fragments, preserved in museum storage drawers across multiple collections. Our task has been to photograph these hundreds of fragments and to decide how to reassemble them digitally. We relied on multiple techniques for this reassembly, and among our most complex tasks was the analysis of many segments of fragmented Latin text. Until our project, these Latin texts were entirely unknown, and scholars had believed that they were lost forever. Relying on new techniques of data analysis, however, we have made significant progress in reconstructing these “lost” texts.
When we reassembled both the lost Latin texts and the pictorial roundels as they had originally been laid, as a floor, we made multiple discoveries. First, we realized that both the textual and visual program supported a reading of the tiles’ program as a construction of English victory in the context of the crusades. This reading makes perfect sense in the historical context in which the floor was commissioned. The Chertsey tiles have long been understood as a royal commission, probably at Westminster Palace under the English king and queen Henry III and Eleanor of Provence, both of whom “took the Cross,” or vowed to go on crusade, in 1250, with a planned departure in 1256. English participation in and indeed victory in a crusading context would have been at the forefront of their presumed patrons’ minds.
Previous scholarship had focused instead on the tiles as a series of famous combats, in which Richard and Saladin’s duel was only one of many. Yet our research has revealed that the other duels shown on the tiles, including a number of lion fights,take on additional meaning in the context of the crusades. Many English crusaders were said to have met with and battled lions while on crusade, for instance, and some crusading families had battles with lions represented on their seals, as a way of suggesting their physical strength. The Chertsey tiles showing lion fights can then be understood as taking place in a crusading context, alongside the mounted archers and crossbowmen, and alongside Richard and Saladin.
A final significant discovery was made after the floor’s lost texts and images were digitally reassembled. Once the original appearance of the floor was revealed, we saw that both its combat imagery and its composition were closely linked to combat imagery and compositions that were well-known from fine silks made in the eastern Mediterranean, where many crusades took place. Portable and valuable silks, many bearing designs of combats and lions in medallions were often brought home by returning crusaders. These silks would have been woven by Islamic or Byzantine craftspeople. An allusion to eastern Mediterranean textiles amplifies the crusading theme of the pavement. Not only does the combat tile floor relate a crusading narrative, it relates that narrative within a visual framework that many of the English and European elite would recognize as “coming from” the Holy Land.
The Chertsey combat tiles and texts show and describe graphic violence against non-Christians. At the same time, they rely on objects and images drawn from the eastern Mediterranean – from Islamic and Byzantine traditions – to do so. Both the brutal violence and the cultural stimulation of the English crusaders’ experience are apparent here, in our reconstruction of the Chertsey tiles.