The Real Significance of the Crusades

Crusader Routes

Sometimes the story goes like this: The Catholic Church attacked the Holy Land in 1095 and relations between Christians and Muslims have been poisoned ever since. This simplistic interpretation is not only false, it misses the real significance of the Crusades. They reacquainted Europe with her past, helped bring her out of the so-called Dark Ages and mark the beginning of a new era in Western history, the High Middle Ages, which laid the foundation for transforming epochs like the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. They also led to the thought of one of Catholicism’s greatest philosophers, St. Thomas Aquinas.

It is well known in the seventh and eighth centuries Muslim armies swept across the Middle East, North Africa and even into Spain. By 750 AD, this Muslim empire replaced the Roman Empire as the dominant power in this region of the world.  But what is less well-know is how the Muslims embraced the Greco-Roman culture they encountered.  Conquest brings disparate civilizations together. Specifically, conquering Alexandria, Egypt, once the intellectual center of Hellenistic Greece, meant Muslim intellectuals had broad access to the greatest works of the classical world. They studied Hippocrates and Galen, translated them into Arabic, provoking advances in Muslin medicine. They translated Pythagoras and Euclid, leading to progress in Muslim math. Algebra and Algorithm are Muslim words, deriving from the titles of the works of one of Islam’s great mathematicians, Muhammad in Musa al-Khwarizmi, the greatest Muslim mathematician of the Middle Ages. They preserved the writings of Archimedes and Ptolemy, the father of map-making. The title of his famous work, The Almagest, comes from the Arabic word al-majesti.

The most important thinker Arabs encountered was Aristotle. Not all of Aristotle’s works were lost to the West after the fall of Rome, but many were. Most importantly his cosmology had fallen out of favor in the Christian West. Thanks to St. Augustine, Plato remained a highly reputable pagan philosopher, certainly more so in Church eyes than Aristotle because Plato believed in the immortality of the soul and posited the existence of an eternal, perfect realm, or idea. Aristotle loved the material world too much for most Church Fathers. He even believed in an infinite world without a creator. But he was beloved by Muslims, earning titles like The Wise Man and First Teacher. His scientific and empirical thought was transfused across the Muslim Empire in Arabic translations by Muslim philosophers like al-Kindi and al-Farabi, or as the Muslims called him, The Second Teacher. A Golden Age in Muslim intellectual history bloomed. By the turn of the first millennium, Muslim medicine, Muslim science and Muslim mathematics were the most advanced in the world.

The Crusades (and the accompanying Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula) changed all of this. For two hundred years, Christian soldiers voyaged eastward and into Spain, ostensibly attempting to free these areas from Muslim control, but in reality, opening Christian Europe to Muslim works. Or more precisely, they reacquainted Europe with her own culture heritage. After Muslim preservation, the works described above were translated from Arabic into the dominant European language, now Latin. Literally thousands of manuscripts appeared, quite an impressive number before the printing press.  Abelard of Bath (b.1075), for example, completed translations of al-Khwarizmi and Euclid from Arabic into Latin. Gerard of Cremona (b.1114) translated dozens of works, including Ptolemy’s Algamest. And Averroes (b. 1126) remains an important figure in the history of Western thought for his popularization of Aristotle. This was a turning point in Western intellectual history because it ignited what historians have labeled as a “Twelve Century Renaissance” during which time the works of the above authors were recovered, translated and studied.  It may not be as famous as the subsequent fifteenth and sixteenth century Renaissance centered in Florence, Italy, but it laid the foundation for the latter. Europe was about to become a center for science, math and philosophy once again.

Specific examples include Robert Grosseteste (b.1175), Roger Bacon (b.1214) (not too be confused with Francis Bacon) and Leonardo Fibonacci (b.1170). Grosseteste was an Oxford don who trained Franciscans in the rigors of university theology.  Deeply influenced by Aristotle, Grosseteste studied math, astronomy, and light. Furthermore, he may have been the first Christian European to engage in serious experimentation in six hundred years. His most famous disciple was Bacon, a Franciscan himself. He experimented with gunpowder, explained how it should be manufactured and noted its potential on the battlefield. Bacon believed knowledge of nature promoted technological development, five centuries before the Scientific and subsequent Industrial Revolution.  He and Grosseteste are the fathers of the English scientific tradition that culminated in the works of Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.

Fibonacci was one of the great mathematicians of the Middle Ages.  His father was part of the burgeoning Italian merchant class that emerged during the Crusades. More traveling led to more roads, thereby promoting trade. A thriving economic system linked North Africa and the Middle East with India and China, but to a large degree, Europe lay on the periphery, at least until the Crusades. Fibonacci actually traveled around North Africa (a phenomena less frequent before the Crusades), studied Muslim mathematicians like the aforementioned al-Khwarizmi and made important contributions to European mathematics. Partially thanks to Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci (1202), we no longer use Roman numerals, but the more efficient and precise Arabic-Hindu numbering system that includes the decimal point.

But it was the newly recovered Aristotle that created the most intellectual ferment in the wake of the Crusades. His ultimate acceptance required his ideas be fused with Catholicism, especially his emphasis on logic, which many believed threatened the Catholic emphasis on faith. The first to attempt systemization was Peter Abelard, who may have been the greatest genius of the twelve century, as well as its most controversial figure.  He was always armed with texts of Aristotle, some of which had recently been translated from Arabic to Latin. Abelard was probably the most qualified yet least able to reintroduce Aristotle to the Western world. He was a clergyman, but it was not in his nature to follow the rules.

In his most famous work, Sic et Non, Abelard tried to show how Aristotelian logic could be applied to religious issues by taking dozens of contradictory statements from Church fathers. He studied ideas of Church fathers—such as whether Jews had committed a mortal sin when they surrendered Jesus to the Romans—and demonstrated disagreements among them. Some said yes, some said no. Abelard insisted these were merely intellectual exercises, but to his critics, he was intentionally showing inconsistencies. They were probably right. Few in history have antagonized like Abelard and he had many enemies in many places. (His illicit and famous affair with Heloise only underscores this.) He was even briefly excommunicated from the Church and his works were banned. Furthermore, Abelard’s efforts on behalf of Aristotle scandalized many faithful. This debacle meant the synthesis of Aristotle with Christianity would have to wait another one-hundred years.

Enter Catholicism’s greatest philosopher of the second millennium, St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas refused to believe that faith and reason were two irreconcilable fields of inquiry.  Although Aquinas explicitly condemned some of Aristotle’s positions, such as his belief in an infinite world, Aquinas’ epistemological method combined Aristotelian logic and his emphasis on the material world: Aquinas reasoned that everything, including the physical world, must have a first cause or creator, for how can anything exist without a first cause?  He used logic to refute atheism. He engages in natural theology, or the study of God through reason and observation, not just faith: “The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature and perfection the perfectible.” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Article 2, Reply to objection 1.) Religious truths can be discovered from observation, even without Scripture or faith. Theology and philosophy are united. Even though Aquinas never would have classified himself as an Aristotelian, without Aristotle, there never would have been Aquinas.

Moreover, following Aristotle, Aquinas saw no problem with accumulating wealth. The poor man is no holier than the rich man if the latter uses his wealth to help others. Refuting the deeply ascetic Franciscans, the Dominican Doctor contends that poverty by itself is not a virtue. To some degree, Aquinas is merely responding to the nascent capitalism in post-Crusades Europe. By the thirteenth century, a scientific-materialism has entered the Western intellectual and cultural tradition. It has never left.

Intellectual revitalization is the real significance of the Crusades. Fields like science, mathematics and philosophy made more progress in the twelve and thirteenth centuries than in the preceding six centuries combined. The Black Death momentarily curbed intellectual growth in the fourteenth century, but by the fifteenth century, Europe was poised to become the world’s dominant civilization.

David Byrne

By

David Byrne is an adjunct professor of Western Civilization at Loyola Marymount University. His research focuses on the history of ideas, especially the relationship between theology and thought. His most recent publication is titled "The Victory of the Proletariat is Inevitable: The Millenarian Nature of Marxism." It appeared in Kritike: An Online Journal of Philosophy.

  • John_O_Neill

    Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus, Christus imperat.

  • jpct50

    “By the turn of the first millennium, Muslim medicine, Muslim science and Muslim mathematics were the most advanced in the world.”
    “To say that the Church played a positive role in the development of science has now become absolutely mainstream, even if this new consensus has not yet managed to trickle down to the general public. In fact, Stanley Jaki, over the course of an extraordinary scholarly career, has developed a compelling argument that in fact it was important aspects of the Christian worldview that accounted for why it was in the West that science enjoyed the success it did as a self-sustaining enterprise. Non-Christian cultures did not possess the same philosophical tools, and in fact were burdened by conceptual frameworks that hindered the development of science. Jaki extends this thesis to seven great cultures: Arabic, Babylonian, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Hindu, and Maya. In these cultures, Jaki explains, science suffered a “stillbirth.” My book gives ample attention to Jaki’s work.” Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      The two ideas are not as contradictory as they seem.

      Muslim medicine, Muslim science, Muslim mathematics, were all based on Greek medicine, Greek science, Greek mathematics. None of these enjoyed the peer review system, which came from the Catholic theological methodology pioneered by St. Thomas Aquinas.

      Without a peer review system, such science has a tendency to get lost when the last student dies. It can be rediscovered later, but ideas don’t spread beyond the teacher-pupil relationship.

      The modern scientific method owes much to the Church.

      • jpct50

        Perhaps science was stillborn in many cultures and did not even approach maturity in Muslim culture for even deeper theological reasons than simple methodology. “Science owes to Christian faith the very spark that made Newtonian science possible. That science is based on the three laws of motion. Once those laws were formulated, a science was at hand which from that point on developed on its own terms, with no end to its progress, with no end to its ever new findings, and with no end to the ever new merchandise it makes available for the free, and, at times, not-so-free markets of neocapitalism. But that irresistible progress needed a spark, the idea of inertial motion, which is the first and most fundamental of Newton’s three laws.” Rev. Father Stanley L. Jaki O.S.B.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          Oh, I completely agree with that. The Ottoman killed off all of the scientists for a very theological reason: Allah cannot be bound by human reason, therefore any attempt to know the mind of God by studying his creation is idolatry.

          The Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, and Hindu Gods were similarly chaotic and random.

          If you can’t count on the rains to come without a sacrifice, how are you ever going to formulate laws about the natural universe?

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Pascal was fond of quoting Wisdom XI:20 “Thou hast ordered all things in measure and number and weight.” He believed that the universe consists of “motion, number and space,” yielding the interrelated studies of “mechanics, arithmetic, and geometry.”

        It was the manifesto of the new physics.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          And was completely missing in the physica of the old, agreed.

  • Steve Kellmeyer

    Wow. This whole thing is so wrong I hardly know where to begin.

    Muslims didn’t translate Greek works into Arabic – Greeks did that.
    Muslims largely ignored Aristotle and other ancient Greek scholars. The Muslims who embraced Aristotle and Greek learning, like Averroes and Avicenna, were labelled heretics by the ummah, the Muslim community and threatened with death. The Greek scholar Diophantes is considered the father of algebra. Persians and Indians also contributed enormously to the discipline. Algebra was named for a Muslim, but he didn’t create the discipline – the Greeks did. He just put his name on it. the same is true of the algorithm.

    Greek learning was diffused into the West by the Greek scholars who fled besieged Constantinople, trying to avoid the coming Muslim hegemony, not by the Muslims. Aquinas went to Greek scholars to get Aristotle’s works, not to Muslim Arabs. They translated it directly from the Greek into the Latin for Aquinas.

    Islam assisted Western learning in the sense that Muslims forced Greek and Latin scholars together in a way that might not have happened without the threat of looming death. The Crusades were an essentially defensive pilgrimage against unremitting Muslim aggression, an aggression which included repeated razings of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the burning of the monastery at Monte Cassino, and the Muslim desecration of both St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and of St. Paul Outside the Walls (Muslim raid in 832 AD).

    • jpaYMCA

      I think we know why Steve Kellmeyer hasn’t published in this field: 3/4 of what he wrote as a “corrective” to the article was imprecise, anachronistic, or simply false. Steve, dear boy, consult one of the medieval “chronica” before attempting to correct someone who has done the research!

  • cestusdei

    Much of what was “Muslim” was in fact what they got from the Greek Christians they conquered. In the long run Islam could not deal with it and eschewed science. It was Christianity that fostered science. The crusades also had a positive impact in that it took the battle for the defense of Europe to the front lines. If only the Latin Kingdom had survived…

  • HenryEustaceMcCulloch

    Professor Byrne gives an interesting overview of the genesis of the Western Renaissance of the Twelfth Century and of the maturing of scholasticism that flowed from it. No doubt from a commendable desire to be diplomatic, though, Professor Byrne gives too much credit where it is not due. The survival and revival of Greek wisdom in Western Christendom owes relatively little to Islam or Moslems, who for religious reasons of their own generally took very little interest in the philosophies or intellectual achievements of infidels. Also, that intellectual process was well underway in the West before the First Crusade, although the exposure of Westerners to the East that came with the Crusades surely helped things along. But the greater part of that intellectual exchange was with Byzantine Greeks, not Moslem Arabs. Largely Christians learning from other Christians.

    As a corrective, and a fascinating history in its own right, I would recommend the French medievalist Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au mont Saint-Michel : Les racines grecques de l’Europe chretienne (http://www.amazon.fr/Aristote-mont-Saint-Michel-grecques-chr%C3%A9tienne/dp/2020965410/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1372869970&sr=1-1&keywords=sylvain+gouguenheim), which contends that there was an unbroken thread of knowledge linking Greek antiquity and early Medieval Europe, in addition to later translations coming from Moslem-conquered lands. The book, whose title translates as Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: the Greek Roots of Christian Europe, appears not to have been translated into English yet despite its having been published in March 2008, over five years ago. Is that a tribute to the hold Moslem sensibilities already have over Western minds, or merely self-censoring political correctness? For those who cannot read French or aren’t inclined to the read the book anyway, Thomas Bertonneau posted a good review at The Brussels Journal: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/3732.

    Even before getting to the Western Christians who were almost entirely responsible for translations into Latin, whether from Greek directly or via Arabic, Gouguenheim discusses the scholars who made the initial translations from Greek to Arabic, which of course were not necessary before Moslems conquered a huge portion of the civilized world and all of the old Christian East except for what the Byzantines managed, for a time, to keep out of their hands. With rare exceptions, although they may have been working under the rule of Moslem despots, those scholarly translators were Christians and Jews.

    Finally, Gouguenheim, whom from his name I take to be Jewish, has a fascinating comment about the differences between the faith and God of Christians and Moslems:

    “To proclaim that Christians and Moslems have the same God, and to hold to that, thus believing one has brought debate to its close, denotes a merely superficial approach. Their Gods do not engage in the same discourse, do not advance the same values, do not propose for mankind the same destiny and do not concern themselves with the same manner of political and legal organisation in human society. A comparative reading of the Gospel and the Koran itself demonstrates that the two universes are unalike. From Christ, who refuses to punish the adulterous woman by stoning, one turns to see Mohammed ordering, in the same circumstances, the putting to death of an unfaithful woman. One cannot follow Jesus and Mohammed.” (my translation)
    Well worth pondering as the millennial challenge of Islam revived confronts the West again, not only in Moslem-ruled lands but, thanks to the feckless folly of the West’s “leaders”, in the very heart of Western nations as well. Our ancestors held the line in earlier days against invading Islam, at Tours, Lepanto, Vienna and elsewhere. The Crusaders played their role in checking the expansion of a hostile Islam. Why are the traitors we now suffer to rule us so readily undoing what earlier and manlier Westerners did for us?

    • Bob Conroy

      Thanks for your comments, Henry!

  • HenryEustaceMcCulloch

    Professor Byrne gives an interesting overview of the genesis of the Western Renaissance of the Twelfth Century and of the maturing of scholasticism that flowed from it. No doubt from a commendable desire to be diplomatic, though, Professor Byrne gives too much credit where it is not due. The survival and revival of Greek wisdom in Western Christendom owes relatively little to Islam or Moslems, who for religious reasons of their own generally took very little interest in the philosophies or intellectual achievements of infidels. Also, that intellectual process was well underway in the West before the First Crusade, although the exposure of Westerners to the East that came with the Crusades surely helped things along. But the greater part of that intellectual exchange was with Byzantine Greeks, not Moslem Arabs. Largely Christians learning from other Christians.

    As a corrective, and a fascinating history in its own right, I would recommend the French medievalist Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au mont Saint-Michel : Les racines grecques de l’Europe chretienne (http://www.amazon.fr/Aristote-mont-Saint-Michel-grecques-chr%C3%A9tienne/dp/2020965410/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1372869970&sr=1-1&keywords=sylvain+gouguenheim), which contends that there was an unbroken thread of knowledge linking Greek antiquity and early Medieval Europe, in addition to later translations coming from Moslem-conquered lands. The book, whose title translates as Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: the Greek Roots of Christian Europe, appears not to have been translated into English yet despite its having been published in March 2008, over five years ago. Is that a tribute to the hold Moslem sensibilities already have over Western minds, or merely self-censoring political correctness? For those who cannot read French or aren’t inclined to the read the book anyway, Thomas Bertonneau posted a good review at The Brussels Journal: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/3732.

    Even before getting to the Western Christians who were almost entirely responsible for translations into Latin, whether from Greek directly or via Arabic, Gouguenheim discusses the scholars who made the initial translations from Greek to Arabic, which of course were not necessary before Moslems conquered a huge portion of the civilized world and all of the old Christian East except for what the Byzantines managed, for a time, to keep out of their hands. With rare exceptions, although they may have been working under the rule of Moslem despots, those scholarly translators were Christians and Jews.

    Finally, Gouguenheim, whom from his name I take to be Jewish, has a fascinating comment about the differences between the faith and God of Christians and Moslems:

    “To proclaim that Christians and Moslems have the same God, and to hold to that, thus believing one has brought debate to its close, denotes a merely superficial approach. Their Gods do not engage in the same discourse, do not advance the same values, do not propose for mankind the same destiny and do not concern themselves with the same manner of political and legal organisation in human society. A comparative reading of the Gospel and the Koran itself demonstrates that the two universes are unalike. From Christ, who refuses to punish the adulterous woman by stoning, one turns to see Mohammed ordering, in the same circumstances, the putting to death of an unfaithful woman. One cannot follow Jesus and Mohammed.” (my translation)
    Well worth pondering as the millennial challenge of Islam revived confronts the West again, not only in Moslem-ruled lands but, thanks to the feckless folly of the West’s “leaders”, in the very heart of Western nations as well. Our ancestors held the line in earlier days against invading Islam, at Tours, Lepanto, Vienna and elsewhere. The Crusaders played their role in checking the expansion of a hostile Islam. Why are the traitors we now suffer to rule us so readily undoing what earlier and manlier Westerners did for us?

  • hombre111

    Nice article. Another story of unintended consequences. The pope and the crusaders had other things in mind, but history spins a story of its own. The same thing must be happening today and all will be clear on some distant tomorrow.

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  • la Catholic state

    Thank you! It is important to spread Christian history like this….and to teach it to young Catholics (and Protestants). Here in the UK….almost half of secondary school history is dedicated to Islam….a strange, whitewashed version. My daughter is learning about the Taj Mahal….and how its builder was a blue-eyed Muslim….with a deep love for his Muslim wife. It’s quite hilarious….and told in such reverential terms.

    I hope that the silent Islamisation of Europe project being foisted on us by post-Christian know-it-alls will bring about another renaissance of Catholicism….as we discover anew just how good our religion and its culture is…..compared with all else.

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  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    It’s not untimely to point out the often ignored fact that at the same time when the Saracens were invading the Holy Land, they were also invading India, with pretty much the same bloody results.

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