The Real History of the Crusades

crusaders_and_muslims

Many historians had been trying for some time to set the record straight on the Crusades — misconceptions are all too common. These historians are not revisionists, but mainstream scholars offering the fruit of several decades of very careful, very serious scholarship. For them, current interest is a “teaching moment,” an opportunity to explain the Crusades while people are actually listening. It won’t last long, so here goes. With the possible exception of Umberto Eco, medieval scholars are not used to getting much media attention. We tend to be a quiet lot (except during the annual bacchanalia we call the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, of all places), poring over musty chronicles and writing dull yet meticulous studies that few will read. Imagine, then, my surprise when within days of the September 11 attacks, the Middle Ages suddenly became relevant.

As a Crusade historian, I found the tranquil solitude of the ivory tower shattered by journalists, editors, and talk-show hosts on tight deadlines eager to get the real scoop. What were the Crusades?, they asked. When were they? Just how insensitive was President George W. Bush for using the word “crusade” in his remarks? With a few of my callers I had the distinct impression that they already knew the answers to their questions, or at least thought they did. What they really wanted was an expert to say it all back to them. For example, I was frequently asked to comment on the fact that the Islamic world has a just grievance against the West. Doesn’t the present violence, they persisted, have its roots in the Crusades’ brutal and unprovoked attacks against a sophisticated and tolerant Muslim world? In other words, aren’t the Crusades really to blame?

Osama bin Laden certainly thinks so. In his various video performances, he never fails to describe the American war against terrorism as a new Crusade against Islam. Ex-president Bill Clinton has also fingered the Crusades as the root cause of the present conflict. In a speech at Georgetown University, he recounted (and embellished) a massacre of Jews after the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 and informed his audience that the episode was still bitterly remembered in the Middle East. (Why Islamist terrorists should be upset about the killing of Jews was not explained.) Clinton took a beating on the nation’s editorial pages for wanting so much to blame the United States that he was willing to reach back to the Middle Ages. Yet no one disputed the ex-president’s fundamental premise.

Well, almost no one. Many historians had been trying to set the record straight on the Crusades long before Clinton discovered them. They are not revisionists, like the American historians who manufactured the Enola Gay exhibit, but mainstream scholars offering the fruit of several decades of very careful, very serious scholarship. For them, this is a “teaching moment,” an opportunity to explain the Crusades while people are actually listening. It won’t last long, so here goes.

Misconceptions about the Crusades are all too common. The Crusades are generally portrayed as a series of holy wars against Islam led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics. They are supposed to have been the epitome of self-righteousness and intolerance, a black stain on the history of the Catholic Church in particular and Western civilization in general. A breed of proto-imperialists, the Crusaders introduced Western aggression to the peaceful Middle East and then deformed the enlightened Muslim culture, leaving it in ruins. For variations on this theme, one need not look far. See, for example, Steven Runciman’s famous three-volume epic, History of the Crusades, or the BBC/A&E documentary, The Crusades, hosted by Terry Jones. Both are terrible history yet wonderfully entertaining.

So what is the truth about the Crusades? Scholars are still working some of that out. But much can already be said with certainty. For starters, the Crusades to the East were in every way defensive wars. They were a direct response to Muslim aggression — an attempt to turn back or defend against Muslim conquests of Christian lands.

Christians in the eleventh century were not paranoid fanatics. Muslims really were gunning for them. While Muslims can be peaceful, Islam was born in war and grew the same way. From the time of Mohammed, the means of Muslim expansion was always the sword. Muslim thought divides the world into two spheres, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War. Christianity — and for that matter any other non-Muslim religion — has no abode. Christians and Jews can be tolerated within a Muslim state under Muslim rule. But, in traditional Islam, Christian and Jewish states must be destroyed and their lands conquered. When Mohammed was waging war against Mecca in the seventh century, Christianity was the dominant religion of power and wealth. As the faith of the Roman Empire, it spanned the entire Mediterranean, including the Middle East, where it was born. The Christian world, therefore, was a prime target for the earliest caliphs, and it would remain so for Muslim leaders for the next thousand years.

With enormous energy, the warriors of Islam struck out against the Christians shortly after Mohammed’s death. They were extremely successful. Palestine, Syria, and Egypt — once the most heavily Christian areas in the world — quickly succumbed. By the eighth century, Muslim armies had conquered all of Christian North Africa and Spain. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which had been Christian since the time of St. Paul. The old Roman Empire, known to modern historians as the Byzantine Empire, was reduced to little more than Greece. In desperation, the emperor in Constantinople sent word to the Christians of western Europe asking them to aid their brothers and sisters in the East.

That is what gave birth to the Crusades. They were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope or rapacious knights but a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point, Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam. The Crusades were that defense.

Pope Urban II called upon the knights of Christendom to push back the conquests of Islam at the Council of Clermont in 1095. The response was tremendous. Many thousands of warriors took the vow of the cross and prepared for war. Why did they do it? The answer to that question has been badly misunderstood. In the wake of the Enlightenment, it was usually asserted that Crusaders were merely lacklands and ne’er-do-wells who took advantage of an opportunity to rob and pillage in a faraway land. The Crusaders’ expressed sentiments of piety, self-sacrifice, and love for God were obviously not to be taken seriously. They were only a front for darker designs.

During the past two decades, computer-assisted charter studies have demolished that contrivance. Scholars have discovered that crusading knights were generally wealthy men with plenty of their own land in Europe. Nevertheless, they willingly gave up everything to undertake the holy mission. Crusading was not cheap. Even wealthy lords could easily impoverish themselves and their families by joining a Crusade. They did so not because they expected material wealth (which many of them had already) but because they hoped to store up treasure where rust and moth could not corrupt. They were keenly aware of their sinfulness and eager to undertake the hardships of the Crusade as a penitential act of charity and love. Europe is littered with thousands of medieval charters attesting to these sentiments, charters in which these men still speak to us today if we will listen. Of course, they were not opposed to capturing booty if it could be had. But the truth is that the Crusades were notoriously bad for plunder. A few people got rich, but the vast majority returned with nothing.

Urban II gave the Crusaders two goals, both of which would remain central to the eastern Crusades for centuries. The first was to rescue the Christians of the East. As his successor, Pope Innocent III, later wrote:

How does a man love according to divine precept his neighbor as himself when, knowing that his Christian brothers in faith and in name are held by the perfidious Muslims in strict confinement and weighed down by the yoke of heaviest servitude, he does not devote himself to the task of freeing them? …Is it by chance that you do not know that many thousands of Christians are bound in slavery and imprisoned by the Muslims, tortured with innumerable torments?

“Crusading,” Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith has rightly argued, was understood as an “an act of love” — in this case, the love of one’s neighbor. The Crusade was seen as an errand of mercy to right a terrible wrong. As Pope Innocent III wrote to the Knights Templar, “You carry out in deeds the words of the Gospel, ‘Greater love than this hath no man, that he lay down his life for his friends.'”

he second goal was the liberation of Jerusalem and the other places made holy by the life of Christ. The word crusade is modern. Medieval Crusaders saw themselves as pilgrims, performing acts of righteousness on their way to the Holy Sepulcher. The Crusade indulgence they received was canonically related to the pilgrimage indulgence. This goal was frequently described in feudal terms. When calling the Fifth Crusade in 1215, Innocent III wrote:

Consider most dear sons, consider carefully that if any temporal king was thrown out of his domain and perhaps captured, would he not, when he was restored to his pristine liberty and the time had come for dispensing justice look on his vassals as unfaithful and traitors…unless they had committed not only their property but also their persons to the task of freeing him? …And similarly will not Jesus Christ, the king of kings and lord of lords, whose servant you cannot deny being, who joined your soul to your body, who redeemed you with the Precious Blood…condemn you for the vice of ingratitude and the crime of infidelity if you neglect to help Him?

The reconquest of Jerusalem, therefore, was not colonialism but an act of restoration and an open declaration of one’s love of God. Medieval men knew, of course, that God had the power to restore Jerusalem Himself — indeed, He had the power to restore the whole world to His rule. Yet as St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached, His refusal to do so was a blessing to His people:

Again I say, consider the Almighty’s goodness and pay heed to His plans of mercy. He puts Himself under obligation to you, or rather feigns to do so, that He can help you to satisfy your obligations toward Himself…. I call blessed the generation that can seize an opportunity of such rich indulgence as this.

It is often assumed that the central goal of the Crusades was forced conversion of the Muslim world. Nothing could be further from the truth. From the perspective of medieval Christians, Muslims were the enemies of Christ and His Church. It was the Crusaders’ task to defeat and defend against them. That was all. Muslims who lived in Crusader-won territories were generally allowed to retain their property and livelihood, and always their religion. Indeed, throughout the history of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Muslim inhabitants far outnumbered the Catholics. It was not until the 13th century that the Franciscans began conversion efforts among Muslims. But these were mostly unsuccessful and finally abandoned. In any case, such efforts were by peaceful persuasion, not the threat of violence.

The Crusades were wars, so it would be a mistake to characterize them as nothing but piety and good intentions. Like all warfare, the violence was brutal (although not as brutal as modern wars). There were mishaps, blunders, and crimes. These are usually well-remembered today. During the early days of the First Crusade in 1095, a ragtag band of Crusaders led by Count Emicho of Leiningen made its way down the Rhine, robbing and murdering all the Jews they could find. Without success, the local bishops attempted to stop the carnage. In the eyes of these warriors, the Jews, like the Muslims, were the enemies of Christ. Plundering and killing them, then, was no vice. Indeed, they believed it was a righteous deed, since the Jews’ money could be used to fund the Crusade to Jerusalem. But they were wrong, and the Church strongly condemned the anti-Jewish attacks.

Fifty years later, when the Second Crusade was gearing up, St. Bernard frequently preached that the Jews were not to be persecuted:

Ask anyone who knows the Sacred Scriptures what he finds foretold of the Jews in the Psalm. “Not for their destruction do I pray,” it says. The Jews are for us the living words of Scripture, for they remind us always of what our Lord suffered…. Under Christian princes they endure a hard captivity, but “they only wait for the time of their deliverance.”

Nevertheless, a fellow Cistercian monk named Radulf stirred up people against the Rhineland Jews, despite numerous letters from Bernard demanding that he stop. At last Bernard was forced to travel to Germany himself, where he caught up with Radulf, sent him back to his convent, and ended the massacres.

It is often said that the roots of the Holocaust can be seen in these medieval pogroms. That may be. But if so, those roots are far deeper and more widespread than the Crusades. Jews perished during the Crusades, but the purpose of the Crusades was not to kill Jews. Quite the contrary: Popes, bishops, and preachers made it clear that the Jews of Europe were to be left unmolested. In a modern war, we call tragic deaths like these “collateral damage.” Even with smart technologies, the United States has killed far more innocents in our wars than the Crusaders ever could. But no one would seriously argue that the purpose of American wars is to kill women and children.

By any reckoning, the First Crusade was a long shot. There was no leader, no chain of command, no supply lines, no detailed strategy. It was simply thousands of warriors marching deep into enemy territory, committed to a common cause. Many of them died, either in battle or through disease or starvation. It was a rough campaign, one that seemed always on the brink of disaster. Yet it was miraculously successful. By 1098, the Crusaders had restored Nicaea and Antioch to Christian rule. In July 1099, they conquered Jerusalem and began to build a Christian state in Palestine. The joy in Europe was unbridled. It seemed that the tide of history, which had lifted the Muslims to such heights, was now turning.

But it was not. When we think about the Middle Ages, it is easy to view Europe in light of what it became rather than what it was. The colossus of the medieval world was Islam, not Christendom. The Crusades are interesting largely because they were an attempt to counter that trend. But in five centuries of crusading, it was only the First Crusade that significantly rolled back the military progress of Islam. It was downhill from there.

When the Crusader County of Edessa fell to the Turks and Kurds in 1144, there was an enormous groundswell of support for a new Crusade in Europe. It was led by two kings, Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany, and preached by St. Bernard himself. It failed miserably. Most of the Crusaders were killed along the way. Those who made it to Jerusalem only made things worse by attacking Muslim Damascus, which formerly had been a strong ally of the Christians. In the wake of such a disaster, Christians across Europe were forced to accept not only the continued growth of Muslim power but the certainty that God was punishing the West for its sins. Lay piety movements sprouted up throughout Europe, all rooted in the desire to purify Christian society so that it might be worthy of victory in the East.

Crusading in the late twelfth century, therefore, became a total war effort. Every person, no matter how weak or poor, was called to help. Warriors were asked to sacrifice their wealth and, if need be, their lives for the defense of the Christian East. On the home front, all Christians were called to support the Crusades through prayer, fasting, and alms. Yet still the Muslims grew in strength. Saladin, the great unifier, had forged the Muslim Near East into a single entity, all the while preaching jihad against the Christians. In 1187 at the Battle of Hattin, his forces wiped out the combined armies of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem and captured the precious relic of the True Cross. Defenseless, the Christian cities began surrendering one by one, culminating in the surrender of Jerusalem on October 2. Only a tiny handful of ports held out.

The response was the Third Crusade. It was led by Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa of the German Empire, King Philip II Augustus of France, and King Richard I Lionheart of England. By any measure it was a grand affair, although not quite as grand as the Christians had hoped. The aged Frederick drowned while crossing a river on horseback, so his army returned home before reaching the Holy Land. Philip and Richard came by boat, but their incessant bickering only added to an already divisive situation on the ground in Palestine. After recapturing Acre, the king of France went home, where he busied himself carving up Richard’s French holdings. The Crusade, therefore, fell into Richard’s lap. A skilled warrior, gifted leader, and superb tactician, Richard led the Christian forces to victory after victory, eventually reconquering the entire coast. But Jerusalem was not on the coast, and after two abortive attempts to secure supply lines to the Holy City, Richard at last gave up. Promising to return one day, he struck a truce with Saladin that ensured peace in the region and free access to Jerusalem for unarmed pilgrims. But it was a bitter pill to swallow. The desire to restore Jerusalem to Christian rule and regain the True Cross remained intense throughout Europe.

The Crusades of the 13th century were larger, better funded, and better organized. But they too failed. The Fourth Crusade (1201-1204) ran aground when it was seduced into a web of Byzantine politics, which the Westerners never fully understood. They had made a detour to Constantinople to support an imperial claimant who promised great rewards and support for the Holy Land. Yet once he was on the throne of the Caesars, their benefactor found that he could not pay what he had promised. Thus betrayed by their Greek friends, in 1204 the Crusaders attacked, captured, and brutally sacked Constantinople, the greatest Christian city in the world. Pope Innocent III, who had previously excommunicated the entire Crusade, strongly denounced the Crusaders. But there was little else he could do. The tragic events of 1204 closed an iron door between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, a door that even today Pope John Paul II has been unable to reopen. It is a terrible irony that the Crusades, which were a direct result of the Catholic desire to rescue the Orthodox people, drove the two further — and perhaps irrevocably — apart.

The remainder of the 13th century’s Crusades did little better. The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) managed briefly to capture Damietta in Egypt, but the Muslims eventually defeated the army and reoccupied the city. St. Louis IX of France led two Crusades in his life. The first also captured Damietta, but Louis was quickly outwitted by the Egyptians and forced to abandon the city. Although Louis was in the Holy Land for several years, spending freely on defensive works, he never achieved his fondest wish: to free Jerusalem. He was a much older man in 1270 when he led another Crusade to Tunis, where he died of a disease that ravaged the camp. After St. Louis’s death, the ruthless Muslim leaders, Baybars and Kalavun, waged a brutal jihad against the Christians in Palestine. By 1291, the Muslim forces had succeeded in killing or ejecting the last of the Crusaders, thus erasing the Crusader kingdom from the map. Despite numerous attempts and many more plans, Christian forces were never again able to gain a foothold in the region until the 19th century.

One might think that three centuries of Christian defeats would have soured Europeans on the idea of Crusade. Not at all. In one sense, they had little alternative. Muslim kingdoms were becoming more, not less, powerful in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. The Ottoman Turks conquered not only their fellow Muslims, thus further unifying Islam, but also continued to press westward, capturing Constantinople and plunging deep into Europe itself. By the 15th century, the Crusades were no longer errands of mercy for a distant people but desperate attempts of one of the last remnants of Christendom to survive. Europeans began to ponder the real possibility that Islam would finally achieve its aim of conquering the entire Christian world. One of the great best-sellers of the time, Sebastian Brant’s The Ship of Fools, gave voice to this sentiment in a chapter titled “Of the Decline of the Faith”:

Our faith was strong in th’ Orient,
It ruled in all of Asia,
In Moorish lands and Africa.
But now for us these lands are gone
‘Twould even grieve the hardest stone….
Four sisters of our Church you find,
They’re of the patriarchic kind:
Constantinople, Alexandria,
Jerusalem, Antiochia.
But they’ve been forfeited and sacked
And soon the head will be attacked.

Of course, that is not what happened. But it very nearly did. In 1480, Sultan Mehmed II captured Otranto as a beachhead for his invasion of Italy. Rome was evacuated. Yet the sultan died shortly thereafter, and his plan died with him. In 1529, Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Vienna. If not for a run of freak rainstorms that delayed his progress and forced him to leave behind much of his artillery, it is virtually certain that the Turks would have taken the city. Germany, then, would have been at their mercy.

Yet, even while these close shaves were taking place, something else was brewing in Europe — something unprecedented in human history. The Renaissance, born from a strange mixture of Roman values, medieval piety, and a unique respect for commerce and entrepreneurialism, had led to other movements like humanism, the Scientific Revolution, and the Age of Exploration. Even while fighting for its life, Europe was preparing to expand on a global scale. The Protestant Reformation, which rejected the papacy and the doctrine of indulgence, made Crusades unthinkable for many Europeans, thus leaving the fighting to the Catholics. In 1571, a Holy League, which was itself a Crusade, defeated the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto. Yet military victories like that remained rare. The Muslim threat was neutralized economically. As Europe grew in wealth and power, the once awesome and sophisticated Turks began to seem backward and pathetic — no longer worth a Crusade. The “Sick Man of Europe” limped along until the 20th century, when he finally expired, leaving behind the present mess of the modern Middle East.

From the safe distance of many centuries, it is easy enough to scowl in disgust at the Crusades. Religion, after all, is nothing to fight wars over. But we should be mindful that our medieval ancestors would have been equally disgusted by our infinitely more destructive wars fought in the name of political ideologies. And yet, both the medieval and the modern soldier fight ultimately for their own world and all that makes it up. Both are willing to suffer enormous sacrifice, provided that it is in the service of something they hold dear, something greater than themselves. Whether we admire the Crusaders or not, it is a fact that the world we know today would not exist without their efforts. The ancient faith of Christianity, with its respect for women and antipathy toward slavery, not only survived but flourished. Without the Crusades, it might well have followed Zoroastrianism, another of Islam’s rivals, into extinction.

This article originally appeared in the March 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.

By

Thomas F. Madden is associate professor and chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University. His latest book is Empires of Trust: How Rome Built—And America Is Building—A New World.

  • S.A.

    I truly enjoyed the article. It’s sad that Christianity is maligned by people who distort fact and teach from a hidden agenda designed to weaken the church’s influence. Good luck on setting the record straight.

    • john

      All religions are man made and we are all fools fighting each other for the leaders of these organizations. Jesus taught us humility and kindness he never created a religion. He hated organized religion and its leaders. He was killed by the establishment with the help of Jewish leaders at that time. Roman Catholic Religion was created by an enterprising king Constantine to control people under his rule. This is a fact Constantine fashioned this new religion with pagan customs and rituals. RC is a religion about Jesus not by him or based on his teachings. If RC had stayed away from Idol worship, Mohamed would not have started a new religion. From 500 AD to 1900 AD, RC and its Pops sanctioned so many atrocities around the world. Any one who study history can see all this. I am not justifying what Obama or his organization did and doing in this world. What I am saying is religions are the root cause for most of the killings in this world. When Hitler killed all those Jews, we did not see the Pope protesting about that. If all religions go away from this world most killings will end and people will live haply.

      • Cord Hamrick

        @ John:

        It is hard to keep up with all the historical falsehoods in your post; they came so fast and thick!

        Before anyone spends time refuting them, let me ask you about intent: Do you intend to back up your assertions? Or was this comment mere trolling on your part? …a sort of lobbing in of a mud-pie, an electronic house-egging, or the combox equivalent of “mailbox baseball?”

        If that’s all it was, then you’ll have moved on to greener pastures already and I needn’t bother replying in detail. But if you’re still here and interested in talking, I’d be happy to correspond.

      • Father Wayne

        Nothing worse than someone who thinks they know it all, particularly in a field in which they are way out of their depth. Your comments typify this and are so off the planet, they are not worth spending too much time over.

    • Father Wayne

      I enjoyed the article also, well researched and presented. All the best to Mr Madden! I did not however, enjoy the comment posted by “john”on the 1st june.

  • Noah D

    …to both the widespread ignorance and misconceptions about the Crusades, and the ‘Imperialism 2.0′ interview on this very site. Thank you.

  • Paul

    Great info, great story but in order to reeducate the misguided masses we’d need to make a movie of it.

    Paging Mel Gibson…?

  • S in Severn

    I was a Fifth Grade student in a public high school in Ohio, this would have been about 1970. And I got into so much trouble for standing up and telling the teacher that the textbook had lies!

    It was that the anti-Catholic influence was apparent, starting in the chapter leading up to the Crusades, but got worse from that point forward.

    I had been reading some other books about history, and most of these seemed to collaborate a history much different from the one in the state issued text book.

  • Xavier

    …..thank you for this article…the true history of Crusaders…long live the crusades. Peace.

  • Kris M

    I read with interest your account of the Crusades. I also believe these brave men did sacrifice much to rescue back our holy places. I understand Godfrey de Bouillon sold his land, and his castle in France, now Beligum, and marched with 40,000 knights and soldiers to the Holy Land.He was able to climb over the wall in Jerusalem and took back The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The year was 1099. He was crowned “King of Jerusalem”, a title he refused because, “Our Lord wore a crown of thorns, in this very city”. He died and was buried in the Holy Sepulchre Church. No mention of him in your article, you did mention the first Crusade to be the most significant, he led the first Crusade.

  • Eric

    It seems like it was not God’s plan for Catholics to liberate Jerusalem -when we stand up for injustice we are victorious, but when we just want to regain relics -God is not with us. Any ideas?

  • casda

    This was an extremely informative post and an exceptionally clear & concise summary of the Crusades. Bravo!

  • Xavier Rynne

    I appreciate your article, however I grow weary of apologists that try to square history with the Divine. As Catholics we want history to prove that every move and every act taken on by the Church and or popes was divinely motivated. I think realistically we must face the fact that the history of the Church is not black and white. It is often glorious and sometimes ugly and far from God’s will. We don’t want to admit these ugly things and so we tend (like all of us in dealing with our own history) to dwell and highlight only the glorious and ignoring, rationalizing or down playing the ugly. Something like the crusades is hard to paint with a broad brush positively or negatively. There are many historians who have a chip on their shoulder will forever proceed in their research with a dim view of the Church, no matter what. The opposite is also true with many Catholics and devoted Catholic historians, whose research will always see the Church in a glowing way no matter what. I choose to be realistic and consider that historians will always bring their personal and theological bias to their view of history of the Church. I think to be integrated honest and true we must accept the reality that the Church is not perfect and was not perfect. No matter how much we wish the Church was perfect and always holy, there were times it was not. The purity and justice of the crusades is a tough sell. There are many excellent historians not connected with the Church whom I believe offer a fair and balance view of the crusades. Their views are not often pretty but I believe fair. I love the Church, but I am not under the dilution that everything done by the Church and some popes was God’s will. It is a human and imperfect organization. We Catholics have done our own fair share of revising history. We often were the first ones to actually put pen to paper, writing an often revised history ourselves. In many ways we were the first revisionists who just happen to be the first to write it down.

  • Nelson Guirado

    Without the Crusades, it might well have followed Zoroastrianism, another of Islam’s rivals, into extinction.

    You know that God promised that the Church would always survive.

  • Juan Garcia

    I appreciate your article, however I grow weary of apologists that try to square history with the Divine. As Catholics we want history to prove that every move and every act taken on by the Church and or popes was divinely motivated. I think realistically we must face the fact that the history of the Church is not black and white. It is often glorious and sometimes ugly and far from God’s will. We don’t want to admit these ugly things and so we tend (like all of us in dealing with our own history) to dwell and highlight only the glorious and ignoring, rationalizing or down playing the ugly. Something like the crusades is hard to paint with a broad brush positively or negatively. There are many historians who have a chip on their shoulder will forever proceed in their research with a dim view of the Church, no matter what. The opposite is also true with many Catholics and devoted Catholic historians, whose research will always see the Church in a glowing way no matter what. I choose to be realistic and consider that historians will always bring their personal and theological bias to their view of history of the Church. I think to be integrated honest and true we must accept the reality that the Church is not perfect and was not perfect. No matter how much we wish the Church was perfect and always holy, there were times it was not. The purity and justice of the crusades is a tough sell. There are many excellent historians not connected with the Church whom I believe offer a fair and balance view of the crusades. Their views are not often pretty but I believe fair. I love the Church, but I am not under the dilution that everything done by the Church and some popes was God’s will. It is a human and imperfect organization. We Catholics have done our own fair share of revising history. We often were the first ones to actually put pen to paper, writing an often revised history ourselves. In many ways we were the first revisionists who just happen to be the first to write it down.

    If you are not with us you are against us. Matthew 12:30 Luke 11:23

    The men who govern the Church are only men and can sin but the Church itself can never sin. That is because our Catholic Church is the one true Church of the one true God and for that reason cannot die. It was to Peter that Christ the Lord said upon the Church I build on you the gates of Hell will not prevail. Our Church has survived when all other Churches have died and fallen to the Muslim scourge. Read Phillip Jenkins “The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – And How It Died” and learn how Christianity, and a form of Christianity that was the closest culturally–though not theologically–to Jesus, was driven to extinction. The Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia were once all Christian lands, even if heretical. The only reason Western Christendom lives whilst Eastern Christendom does not is because Europe was the only place where the true faith was not destroyed.

    Do you think that Saint Thomas in India, Saint Mark in Egypt, St. James in Jerusalem, Saint Jude Thaddeus in Arabia were just poor evangelizers leaving the majority of people in their lands without religion and twiddling their thumbs waiting for Muslims to come and convert them to Islam? No. Free yourself from the dilution–or delusion–you hold. Unless the Crusaders had been there, laying down their lives for the salvation of their fellow Christians and holding back the Muslim tide you would be paying Jizya, or protection money, to your local Muslim overlord. Love Mother Church and protect her, or get out. We have no room for self hating Christians.

  • Killian Kelders

    Perhaps Xavier you think you are not under dilution but i would suggest your belief in your fellow crusader-christians who sacrficed a much cosier and certainty of lifestyle in Europe and therefore perhaps your christian belief as a whole is diluted – i am under no illusion of that

    Remember these men no matter what the material gain were certainly also in search of spiritual reward – the proof to that end is the stepping into the unknown – knowing that a tough march of 1000’s of miles, starvation, sickness and then battles to fight and possible death at each and every stage. Regardless of the rebuke for their failings give these men and women crusaders the credit they deserve.

    They were under no illusion of the uncertainty and the void into which they stepped, an attempt at such an undertaking is testament to their in no small measure, noble aspirations, and the integrity of their faith.

    God Bless those Faithful men and women.

  • CPMH

    I’m wondering how to reconcile the crusades and Christians persecuted and martyred in the Middle East today to the Church’s teaching in Nostra Aetate? Any ideas?

    Nostra Aetate: http://www.vatican.va/archive/…te_en.html

  • Tony Esolen

    Somebody mentioned Godfrey of Bouillon …

    If you all want to read the greatest Catholic-Reformation epic, on the First Crusade and Godfrey — that would be Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered — I know where you can find a fine verse translation smilies/smiley.gif

  • J de la Cruz

    Thank you for the article.

    I’m curious, why the Battle of Vienna in 1683 was not mentioned?

  • Peter Freeman

    Two points:
    1) There is a current wave of Renaissance scholarship that discusses how researchers often read Europe’s approach to Islam through post-colonial anachronism. During their imperialist climax, the Victorians thought it simply charming and droll that England ever imagined Muslims as a military threat. And there was quite a bit of propaganda going around in the last two centuries to justify European colonization and oppression. In a post-colonial academe, medieval and early modern depictions of Islam do seem like a set up for the colonial ventures of later periods…but this tends to ignore the sincerity of earlier fears. Nabil Matar’s research is a good read on the subject.

    2) Kalamazoo is one of the only major conferences I’ve ever attended where you will find religious in full habit and see posters advertising daily and Sunday Mass. It makes me wish I did more medieval work. On the other hand, it’s the only conference where I had to open my dorm room window to tell senior faculty to take their drinking party someplace else so I could get enough sleep for my presentation the next day…

  • Phil

    This article is as unhistorical as the accounts it decries. No credible historian would ever frankly writw that the Crusades were an act of love made by godly, pious people denfending themselves against the evil Muslims without establishing an obje tive distance between the writer and subjects’ Point of view, no matter the validity of the account.
    Isn’t the bias so glaringly obvious?

  • The Old Crusader

    First point: “No credible historian would ever frankly writw that the Crusades were an act of love made by godly, pious people denfending themselves against the evil Muslims.”

    Phil: I don’t think your characterization at all captures the article. If I were to rephrase your comment I would say the article says “the Crusades were begun as a defensive war made by concerned people who hoped to gain spiritual laurels against what appeared to be the militarily unstoppable Muslims.”

    Second Point: I do not know all the details of the “Enola Gay” exhibit but a gratuitous slam of ‘revisionism’ which simply means ‘to look again’ is uncalled for. The indiscriminate allied air attacks on civilian populations during the second world war were war crimes if the term is to have any meaning at all.

  • Brian English

    “I’m wondering how to reconcile the crusades and Christians persecuted and martyred in the Middle East today to the Church’s teaching in Nostra Aetate? Any ideas?”

    Could you be more specific in what you are trying to reconcile?

  • Brian English

    “This article is as unhistorical as the accounts it decries. No credible historian would ever frankly writw that the Crusades were an act of love made by godly, pious people denfending themselves against the evil Muslims without establishing an obje tive distance between the writer and subjects’ Point of view, no matter the validity of the account.
    Isn’t the bias so glaringly obvious?”

    Dr. Madden is simply summarizing the mountain of research that has been done on this issue in the last 30-40 years, primarily by Jonathan Riley-Smith. Track down Riley-Smith’s The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, What Were the Crusades?, and The First Crusaders, if you want to read more detailed examinations of what the Crusaders and contemporary Church leaders thought they were doing.

  • Brian English

    “There are many excellent historians not connected with the Church whom I believe offer a fair and balance view of the crusades.”

    Could you share the names of these historians?

  • Brian English

    “No mention of him in your article, you did mention the first Crusade to be the most significant, he led the first Crusade.”

    Godfrey de Bouillon gets several mentions in Prof. Madden’s The New Concise History of The Crusades.

    I think saying he led the First Crusade is a bit of an overstatement. The First Crusade had several dfferent leaders (which makes its success even more amazing). Godfrey appears to have been the respected mediator between the more hot-headed leaders–Bohemond and Raymond.

  • AC

    What is not well known by today’s person is that in about 1000 to 1050 the lands ruled by Islamic persons were Sicily, Southern Italy, Sardian, Corsica and Spain. So it was seen as a threat and the decission was in 1095 (by now Southern Italy was cleared by Normans) that the fight should begin to take back more valuable lands – ie lands for pilgramage.

    The period of the Crusades are used and have been since about 1600 as a way of attacking Catholism (by Protestants) and Christianity/religion by the ‘Enlightenment thinkers’ or atheists. There is no concept of war being fought to protect those who can’t do it themselves.
    a book that has some information about this (albeit a touch haiagraphical for the crusades – but then given so much is anti-crusader….) is Rodney Stark’s God’s Battalions: the case for the crusades

    As to the Enola Gay exhibit in the Smithsonian (I’m not sure if it is still up), it put forth the feel – if not the out right idea – that the US had no reason to drop the atomic bomb, and esentially everyone envolved were war criminals of the worst kind. No contray idea that the Japaness were going to fight to the last child (down to the age that could hold a knife) is mentioned in the exhibit. If you look through the Japaness studies of this you find them telling that story.

    Anyhow the way the exhibit went looking only at the negative of the US actions is what is ment by ‘revissionism’ that a historian goes and digs for the facts that support his preconceived ideological point he wishes to make about today.

  • Pammie

    Wonderful article. I became interested in the Crusades most especially after having lived close by a Crusader castle in Lebanon for a while . There are several of them there which I try to visit whenever I go to the area. I intend to read more of Mr. Madden’s works in future.

  • Phil

    Here’s an example:
    “The reconquest of Jerusalem, therefore, was not colonialism but an act of restoration and an open declaration of one’s love of God. Medieval men knew, of course, that God had the power to restore Jerusalem Himself — indeed, He had the power to restore the whole world to His rule. Yet as St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached, His refusal to do so was a blessing to His people”
    The problems with this passage are that it writes of the perspectives of the Crusaders not as perspectives, but as of they were truth. It is written that Medieval men “knew” that God had the power to restore Jerusalem and that the reconquest of Jerusalem “was” a declaration of love for God. It is not written that medieval men “believed” that God had such powers or that the recoquest was “seen” as a declaration of love. The author is clearly aligning the Crusaders’ perspective with his own, which is extremely ahistorical.
    Just as an aside, if you read a contemporary Muslim account of the Crusades you’ll find that the European Crusaders are usually refered to as ‘the franks’ and the writers frequently allude to the divisions among Muslims the Crusades have caused. interestingly, it is usually claimed that religion was a motivator for the ‘Franks’ and not neccessarily the Muslims. The point is that you simply can’t generalize the Crusades as a struggle between pious, Holy Christians and bloodthirsty Muslims in the same way you can’t reduce it to a struggle between vicious Europeans and docile Arabs. Tru history isn’t pro-Catholic or anti- Catholic or strongly pro- or anti- anything, and if ever you see a narrative like this which doesn’t even try to create a distance between writer and subject you shouldn’t believe it, no matter the factual truth of the piece.

  • Jeff

    Phil whatever we want to say we have to agree that Islam emerged after Christianity and was initially spread by the sword. Perhaps it was also used as a pretext to conquer lands and booty or not. Christian kingdoms such as the one in Jerusalem and Egypt were conquered (not to mention pagan kingdoms) and the Muslims spread into Europe (Spain, Sicily etc). In that light it is most obvious who the aggressors were and that some form of defensive military response was warranted by our ancestors. Nowadays the typical internet, foul mouthed, 4chan, overtly emotional, semi-educated, anti-religious zealot does not know this, neither does he know that he’d now be a Muslim had it not been for the Crusades (going all the way up to Sobieski’s defeat of the Turks at Vienna) and would not be able to enjoy his 4chan. Perhaps in that case it would have been a better thing for the individuals involved.

  • michaelcebu

    Phil,

    The article is about

  • CPMH

    Could you be more specific in what you are trying to reconcile?

    Below is what Pope Paul VI proclaimed in Nostra Aetate about Muslims in 1965. I’ve highlighted in bold what is most hard to reconcile with what we see today.

    “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

    “Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”

  • CPMH

    I’m curious, why the Battle of Vienna in 1683 was not mentioned?

    I’m not a historian and would be interested in knowing why you believe it should have been mentioned.

  • Brian English

    “The problems with this passage are that it writes of the perspectives of the Crusaders not as perspectives, but as of they were truth. It is written that Medieval men “knew” that God had the power to restore Jerusalem and that the reconquest of Jerusalem “was” a declaration of love for God. It is not written that medieval men “believed” that God had such powers or that the recoquest was “seen” as a declaration of love. The author is clearly aligning the Crusaders’ perspective with his own, which is extremely ahistorical.”

    I think Prof. Madden is describing the situation from the Crusaders’ perspective, and that is why he used that language. And as long as he is correctly describing the views of the Crusaders, what is the problem?

    “The point is that you simply can’t generalize the Crusades as a struggle between pious, Holy Christians and bloodthirsty Muslims in the same way you can’t reduce it to a struggle between vicious Europeans and docile Arabs.”

    I don’t see where Madden did that. And the fact is, in the 450 years prior to the First Crusade, the Muslims had been the aggressors in the conflict between Christendom and Islam.

  • Brian English

    “Below is what Pope Paul VI proclaimed in Nostra Aetate about Muslims in 1965. I’ve highlighted in bold what is most hard to reconcile with what we see today.”

    Now I understand. I thought you were asking about reconciling Nostra Aetate with the Crusades.

    With regard to reconciling it with what we see today, I think Pius VI was trying to accentuate the positive. I think we also have to remember that the radical Islamic groups we are now dealing with had not made an appearance on the world stage yet.

  • Marc

    I agree almost 100% with this article. I think it is marred by the disingenuous comparison between the killing of Jews during the Middle Ages (which was deliberate by the crusaders as individuals) and the dropping of bombs on Iraq where the innocent lives lost were truly accidental. I know that is little comfort to those who died, but if the comparison were to truly hold it would be US soldiers, in the heat of battle, massacring Muslims out of a hatred for Muslims as Muslims. This is clearly not the case in the Iraq war. To compare the two is specious, even if more people have died in our modern wars.

  • Michael LaRocca

    It wouldn’t bother me a bit to see both religions fall, actually.

  • Brian English

    “It wouldn’t bother me a bit to see both religions fall, actually.”

    Which immediately raises the question of what you are doing hanging around on a website called InsideCatholic?

  • Andy

    I know that is little comfort to those who died, but if the comparison were to truly hold it would be US soldiers, in the heat of battle, massacring Muslims out of a hatred for Muslims as Muslims. This is clearly not the case in the Iraq war.

    And yet this past weeks’ headlines have been dominated by reports of US soldiers in Afghanistan doing just that. The kind of evils perpetrated by that group or incidents like Abu Ghraib don’t validate or invalidate the entire war. Saying the Crusades were about killing Jews would be like saying Iraq was about imprisoning and torturing Iraqis. Dr. Madden’s comparison is actually quite apt.

  • Marc

    Andy, Incidents like Abu Ghraib, or what happened in Afghanistan are few and far between compared to the pogroms that were launched against the Jews. And anyway, those examples were not what Dr. Madden was referring to.

    Here are Dr. Madden’s actual words (underlining mine):

    “In a modern war, we call tragic deaths like these “collateral damage.” Even with smart technologies, the United States has killed far more innocents in our wars than the Crusaders ever could. But no one would seriously argue that the purpose of American wars is to kill women and children.”

    Dr. Madden is clearly referring to innocents killed accidentally by smart bombs, etc. No one has ever said that the things that you refer to are “collateral damage.”

    For the record I am basically “for” the crusades and against the war in Iraq, and at least against the way the war has been fought in Afghanistan. It only hurts our case to try to compare two very unlike things.

    If Dr. Madden had used the examples you cite her argument would have been stronger, although still not fully comparable.

  • Marc

    I mean to say his argument would have been stronger…

  • J de la Cruz

    I’m not a historian and would be interested in knowing why you believe it should have been mentioned.

    After reading the article, it occurred to me I did not see the Battle of 1683 (Battle of Vienna) mentioned. It was a decisive turning point in stopping the Ottoman Muslim empire from taking all over Europe after their repeated assault.

    We also celebrate the victory on September 12th, the feast of Holy Name of Mary.

  • CPMH

    “…Battle of 1683 (Battle of Vienna) mentioned. It was a decisive turning point in stopping the Ottoman Muslim empire from taking all over Europe…”

    But the victory in Vienna is perhaps not attributable to the Crusades since it was in the seventeenth century.

    He seems to place the end of the “Crusades” in the sixteenth century and attributes the victory over the Ottoman empire to European economic development and the backwardness of the Turks. Note what he wrote:

    “The Muslim threat was neutralized economically. As Europe grew in wealth and power, the once awesome and sophisticated Turks began to seem backward and pathetic — no longer worth a Crusade.”

    What do you think?

  • CPMH

    I think we also have to remember that the radical Islamic groups we are now dealing with had not made an appearance on the world stage yet.

    Then, why the Crusades?

  • Brian English

    “the pogroms that were launched against the Jews.”

    The Crusades were not pogroms against the Jews. The massacres of Jews in the Rhineland by various groups who started for the Holy Land prior to the main armies of the First Crusade were not sanctioned by the Church, and were actually opposed, in some cases militarily, by local bishops.

    In the Year 1096 — The First Crusade and the Jews, by Robert Chazan, is an excellent examination of these events by a Jewish scholar.

  • Brian English

    “After reading the article, it occurred to me I did not see the Battle of 1683 (Battle of Vienna) mentioned. It was a decisive turning point in stopping the Ottoman Muslim empire from taking all over Europe after their repeated assault.”

    Although the relief of Vienna in 1683 had some elements of a Crusade, it is usually not considered to fall within the Crusading Era.

    Also, the attack on Vienna in 1683 is usually regarded as a last gasp effort by the Ottomans that, even if successful, would not have resulted in the rest of Europe falling. That should take nothing away from the valiant efforts of the Austrians and the Poles under John Sobieski.

    The attack in 1529 is usually regarded as a more serious threat because the Ottomans were at the height of their power, and were being led by a warrior Sultan of great ability. If Vienna had fallen then, with Europe already engaged in the chaos of the Reformation, there really would have been a threat of serious Ottoman encroachment into Western Europe.

  • Brian English

    “Then, why the Crusades?”

    Well, the Crusaders were facing the ideological forefathers of the modern Islamists. By 1965, those memories had faded, and in the previous 200 years no one except for Hilaire Belloc had expected to see aggressive Islam rise again.

  • Marc

    “It is often said that the roots of the Holocaust can be seen in these medieval pogroms.”

    I have never maintained that the Crusades were launched for the purpose of launching pogroms against Jews. Dr. Madden called the attacks against the Jews “medieval pogroms.”

    The bottom line is that Dr. Madden’s comparison of the US use of smart bombs and the “collateral damage” these smart bombs inadvertently cause is specious. It is strange that no one here is willing to simply affirm what is absolutely clear from Dr. Madden’s words.

    It is an incorrect comparison pure and simple. The comparison is either mistaken or disingenuous.

    I’m happy to affirm here that the Bishops and Popes never approved of the pogroms against the Jews. That is not what I am maintaining here. I thought that was clear.

  • Brian English

    “The bottom line is that Dr. Madden’s comparison of the US use of smart bombs and the “collateral damage” these smart bombs inadvertently cause is specious. It is strange that no one here is willing to simply affirm what is absolutely clear from Dr. Madden’s words.”

    I think Dr. Madden is just comparing them along the lines of in both situations the deaths were unintended consequences of the wars.

  • CPMH

    By 1965, those memories had faded…

    So you don’t believe Nostra Aetate is objectively correct with regard to its teaching on Muslims.

  • J de la Cruz

    Thank you CMPH and Brian English for answering my question.

    I have a keen interest in the Crusades and its history since my colleagues, friends, and a few relatives point to the Crusades as something I should be ashamed of when I mention the contribution of the Catholic Church to Western civilization.

  • zaneta garratt

    yes, this is an interesting article and it is most lightly true that the Crusades were defenders who did not want the progression of Islam to squash Christianity-there were however both good and bad crusaders and the fight against Islam continued in Poitires, Lepanto and Vienna but Zoroastrainism, although bashed greatly by the cruel and bloody Muslim invasion of Persia by Calif Omar, IS NOT EXTINCT-it still flourishes today in Iran, India,the USA and also Australia

  • Brian English

    “So you don’t believe Nostra Aetate is objectively correct with regard to its teaching on Muslims.”

    I think it is focusing on the positive elements of Islam at a time before the negative elements became serious issues.

  • Brian English

    You would probably like Madden’s The New Concise History of the Crusades and Riley-Smith’s A Short History of the Crusades.

    On Vienna 1683, Osprey Publisihing has a short book that does a good job of covering the siege and battle. There are also more detailed books by John Storey and Andrew Wheatcroft that came out in the past few years.

  • Scott

    Dr. Madden is clearly referring to innocents killed accidentally by smart bombs, etc. No one has ever said that the things that you refer to are “collateral damage.”

    My ears also picked up when I read Dr. Madden’s assertion about “collateral damage”. Clearly, accidental killings of civilians by wayward or mistargeted bombs is quite different from a rogue band deliberately rampaging against a group of Jews. And I think that “collateral damage” is typically used to describe accidental carnage.

    However, it also occurs to me that incidents like My Lai in Vietnam, and at least a few other terrible massacres (mostly smaller) by American troups in war, are perhaps closer in similarity to the Rhine rampage(s). Even there, however, there is still a major difference: in the modern massacres the soldiers “snapped” while in the strain of the prinicipal conflict, and did things that were clearly not part of the military prosecution of the war (and that is the only reason they could be referred to as “collateral damage”). In the case of the Rhine rampages, the carnage was deliberate, and actually happened outside of the real conflict (in the Middle East), though it too was outside of the prosecution of the war and not part of the papal mandate. Therefore, I don’t think the “collateral damage” comparison is appropriate.
    I have seen the charge about the massacre of Jews in Europe brought up before, and it was not mentioned that this was condemned by the Church.

  • CPMH

    I think it is focusing on the positive elements of Islam at a time before the negative elements became serious issues.

    It sounds like you accept Nostra Aetate as objectively true but in a very limited way.

    The negative elements had been a serious issue previously. Having forgotten such was the case or merely focusing on “the positive elements” somehow seems inadequate. But I am not sure what else it could have done. Shouldn’t the Church just tell Catholics and the world that the Koran cannot possibly be true, because Christianity is; and that Muslims do not adore the true God or follow a morally coherent religion?

  • CPMH

    … my colleagues, friends, and a few relatives point to the Crusades as something I should be ashamed of …

    That’s a favorite anti-Christian attack. The Spanish Inquisition and Galileo too. Dear but lapsed catholic relatives and friends have used it on me as I presume it was used on them.

    I have not read much on any of these topics but viewed a Gloria TV video which suggested that new research on the Spanish Inquisition was intentionally mischaracterized. Historian Henry Kamen appeared on the video. Hope that also helps J de la Cruz.
    —————————————————————-
    BTW – Thank you, Brian English, for your reading tips.

  • CTrent1564

    “Then Why the Crusades”

    The type of radical Islam we see today is more of diverse terroist groups that are not part of the tradtitional nation state or kingdom whereby the combatants were under the flags of their respective country/kingdom, etc. So the Crusades, as Prof. Madden points out were fought by “soldiers-crusaders” under the legitimate authority and engaged the mohammedens on the field of battle in what was in essence no differn than the U.S. Army fighting the Japanese and Hitler in WWII or the Union and the Confederates in the U.S. War between the States as it was engaged by combatants.

    At the time of Vatican II [1962-1965], as another poster noted, we had not yet seen the Islamic Jihadist movement in the form we see it today but by 1972, for those of you who remember the Olympics that year, Islamic Jihadist groups murdered several Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, which then caused them to be moved to Moscow and from that point on, the civilized world has had to deal with the modern mohammeden jihadist groups in an ever increasing frequency just as Belloc predicted back in the 1930’s.

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