The Crusades Were an Act of Love

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Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in the April 2002 print edition of Crisis. It has been edited for brevity.

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.

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 bath no man, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

The 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.

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.

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.

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.

Image: Cathedral of Tours, France (jorisvo/Shutterstock.com)

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.

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