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The Crusades are much in the news of late. President Bush made the mistake
of referring to the war against terrorism as a "crusade" and
was roundly criticized for uttering a word both offensive and hurtful
to the worlds Muslims. If it is painful, then it is remarkable indeed
how often the Arabs themselves make use of the word. Osama bin Laden and
Mullah Omar have repeatedly referred to Americans as "crusaders"
and the present war as a "crusade against Islam." For decades
now Americans have been routinely referred to as "crusaders"
or "cowboys" among Arabs in the Middle East. Clearly the crusades
are very much alive in the Muslim world.
They are not forgotten in the West either. Actually, despite the many
differences between the East and West, most people in both cultures are
in agreement about the Crusades. It is commonly accepted that the Crusades
are a black mark on the history of Western civilization generally and
the Catholic Church in particular. Anyone eager to bash Catholics will
not long tarry before brandishing the Crusades and the Inquisition. The
Crusades are often used as a classic example of the evil that organized
religion can do. Your average man on the street in both New York and Cairo
would agree that the Crusades were an insidious, cynical, and unprovoked
attack by religious zealots against a peaceful, prosperous, and sophisticated
It was not always so. During the Middle Ages you could not find a Christian
in Europe who did not believe that the Crusades were an act of highest
good. Even the Muslims respected the ideals of the Crusades and the piety
of the men who fought them. But that all changed with the Protestant Reformation.
For Martin Luther, who had already jettisoned the Christian doctrines
of papal authority and indulgences, the Crusades were nothing more than
a ploy by a power-hungry papacy. Indeed, he argued that to fight the Muslims
was to fight Christ himself, for it was he who had sent the Turks to punish
Christendom for its faithlessness. When Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent
and his armies began to invade Austria, Luther changed his mind about
the need to fight, but he stuck to his condemnation of the Crusades. During
the next two centuries people tended to view the Crusades through a confessional
lens: Protestants demonized them, Catholics extolled them. As for Suleiman
and his successors, they were just glad to be rid of them.
It was in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that the current
view of the Crusades was born. Most of the philosophes, like Voltaire,
believed that medieval Christianity was a vile superstition. For them
the Crusades were a migration of barbarians led by fanaticism, greed,
and lust. Since then, the Enlightenment take on the Crusades has gone
in and out of fashion. The Crusades received good press as wars of nobility
(although not religion) during the Romantic period and the early twentieth
century. After the Second World War, however, opinion again turned decisively
against the Crusades. In the wake of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, historians
found war of ideologyany ideology distasteful. This sentiment
was summed up by Sir Steven Runciman in his three-volume work, A History
of the Crusades (1951-54). For Runciman, the Crusades were morally
repugnant acts of intolerance in the name of God. The medieval men who
took the cross and marched to the Middle East were either cynically evil,
rapaciously greedy, or naively gullible. This beautifully written history
soon became the standard. Almost single-handedly Runciman managed to define
the modern popular view of the Crusades.
Since the 1970s the Crusades have attracted many hundreds of scholars
who have meticulously poked, prodded, and examined them. As a result,
much more is known about Christianitys holy wars than ever before.
Yet the fruits of decades of scholarship have been slow to enter the popular
mind. In part this is the fault of professional historians, who tend to
publish studies that, by necessity, are technical and therefore not easily
accessible outside of the academy. But it is also due to a clear reluctance
among modern elites to let go of Runcimans vision of the Crusades.
And so modern popular books on the Crusadesdesiring, after all,
to be populartend to parrot Runciman. The same is true for other
media, like the multi-part television documentary, The Crusades (1995),
produced by BBC/A&E and starring Terry Jones of Monty Python
fame. To give the latter an air of authority the producers spliced in
a number of distinguished Crusade historians who gave their views on events.
The problem was that the historians would not go along with Runcimans
ideas. No matter. The producers simply edited the taped interviews cleverly
enough that the historians seemed to be agreeing with Runciman. As Professor
Jonathan Riley-Smith quite vehemently told me, "They made me appear
to say things that I do not believe!"
So, what is the real story of the Crusades? As you might imagine, it is
a long story. But there are good histories, written in the last twenty
years, that lay much of it out. For the moment, given the barrage of coverage
that the Crusades are getting nowadays, it might be best to consider just
what the Crusades were not. Here, then, are some of the most common myths
and why they are wrong.
Myth 1: The Crusades were wars of unprovoked aggression against
a peaceful Muslim world.
This is as wrong as wrong can be. From the time of Mohammed, Muslims had
sought to conquer the Christian world. They did a pretty good job of it,
too. After a few centuries of steady conquests, Muslim armies had taken
all of North Africa, the Middle East, Asia Minor, and most of Spain. In
other words, by the end of the eleventh century the forces of Islam had
captured two-thirds of the Christian world. Palestine, the home of Jesus
Christ; Egypt, the birthplace of Christian monasticism; Asia Minor, where
St. Paul planted the seeds of the first Christian communities: These were
not the periphery of Christianity but its very core. And the Muslim empires
were not finished yet. They continued to press westward toward Constantinople,
ultimately passing it and entering Europe itself. As far as unprovoked
aggression goes, it was all on the Muslim side. At some point what was
left of the Christian world would have to defend itself or simply succumb
to Islamic conquest. The First Crusade was called by Pope Urban II in
1095 in response to an urgent plea for help from the Byzantine emperor
in Constantinople. Urban called the knights of Christendom to come to
the aid of their eastern brethren. It was to be an errand of mercy, liberating
the Christians of the East from their Muslim conquerors. In other words,
the Crusades were from the beginning a defensive war. The entire
history of the eastern Crusades is one of response to Muslim aggression.
Myth 2: The Crusaders wore crosses, but they were really only interested
in capturing booty and land. Their pious platitudes were just a cover
for rapacious greed.
Historians used to believe that a rise in Europes population led
to a crisis of too many noble "second sons," those who were
trained in chivalric warfare but who had no feudal lands to inherit. The
Crusades, therefore, were seen as a safety valve, sending these belligerent
men far from Europe where they could carve out lands for themselves at
someone elses expense. Modern scholarship, assisted by the advent
of computer databases, has exploded this myth. We now know that it was
the "first sons" of Europe that answered the popes call
in 1095, as well as in subsequent Crusades. Crusading was an enormously
expensive operation. Lords were forced to sell off or mortgage their lands
to gather the necessary funds. They were also not interested in an overseas
kingdom. Much like a soldier today, the medieval Crusader was proud to
do his duty but longed to return home. After the spectacular successes
of the First Crusade, with Jerusalem and much of Palestine in Crusader
hands, virtually all of the Crusaders went home. Only a tiny handful remained
behind to consolidate and govern the newly won territories. Booty was
also scarce. In fact, although Crusaders no doubt dreamed of vast wealth
in opulent Eastern cities, virtually none of them ever even recouped their
expenses. But money and land were not the reasons that they went on Crusade
in the first place. They went to atone for their sins and to win salvation
by doing good works in a faraway land.
Myth 3: When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 they massacred
every man, woman, and child in the city until the streets ran ankle deep
with the blood.
This is a favorite used to demonstrate the evil nature of the Crusades.
Most recently, Bill Clinton in a speech at Georgetown cited this as one
reason the United States is a victim of Muslim terrorism. (Although Mr.
Clinton brought the blood up to knee level for effect.) It is certainly
true that many people in Jerusalem were killed after the Crusaders captured
the city. But this must be understood in historical context. The accepted
moral standard in all pre-modern European and Asian civilizations was
that a city that resisted capture and was taken by force belonged to the
victorious forces. That included not just the buildings and goods, but
the people as well. That is why every city or fortress had to weigh carefully
whether it could hold out against besiegers. If not, it was wise to negotiate
terms of surrender. In the case of Jerusalem, the defenders had resisted
right up to the end. They calculated that the formidable walls of the
city would keep the Crusaders at bay until a relief force in Egypt could
arrive. They were wrong. When the city fell, therefore, it was put to
the sack. Many were killed, yet many others were ransomed or allowed to
go free. By modern standards this may seem brutal. Yet a medieval knight
would point out that many more innocent men, women, and children are killed
in modern bombing warfare than could possibly be put to the sword in one
or two days. It is worth noting that in those Muslim cities that surrendered
to the Crusaders the people were left unmolested, retained their property,
and allowed to worship freely. As for those streets of blood, no historian
accepts them as anything other than a literary convention. Jerusalem is
a big town. The amount of blood necessary to fill the streets to a continuous
and running three-inch depth would require many more people than lived
in the region, let alone the city.
Myth 4: The Crusades were just medieval colonialism dressed up in
It is important to remember that in the Middle Ages the West was not a
powerful, dominant culture venturing into a primitive or backward region.
It was the Muslim East that was powerful, wealthy, and opulent. Europe
was the third world. The Crusader States, founded in the wake of the First
Crusade, were not new plantations of Catholics in a Muslim world akin
to the British colonization of America. Catholic presence in the Crusader
States was always tiny, easily less than ten percent of the population.
These were the rulers and magistrates, as well as Italian merchants and
members of the military orders. The overwhelming majority of the population
in the Crusader States was Muslim. They were not colonies, therefore,
in the sense of plantations or even factories, as in the case of India.
They were outposts. The ultimate purpose of the Crusader States was to
defend the Holy Places in Palestine, especially Jerusalem, and to provide
a safe environment for Christian pilgrims to visit those places. There
was no mother country with which the Crusader States had an economic relationship,
nor did Europeans economically benefit from them. Quite the contrary,
the expense of Crusades to maintain the Latin East was a serious drain
on European resources. As an outpost, the Crusader States kept a military
focus. While the Muslims warred against each other the Crusader States
were safe, but once united the Muslims were able to dismantle the strongholds,
capture the cities, and in 1291 expel the Christians completely.
Myth 5: The Crusades were also waged against the Jews.
No pope ever called a Crusade against Jews. During the First Crusade a
large band of riffraff, not associated with the main army, descended on
the towns of the Rhineland and decided to rob and kill the Jews they found
there. In part this was pure greed. In part it also stemmed from the incorrect
belief that the Jews, as the crucifiers of Christ, were legitimate targets
of the war. Pope Urban II and subsequent popes strongly condemned these
attacks on Jews. Local bishops and other clergy and laity attempted to
defend the Jews, although with limited success. Similarly, during the
opening phase of the Second Crusade a group of renegades killed many Jews
in Germany before St. Bernard was able to catch up to them and put a stop
to it. These misfires of the movement were an unfortunate byproduct of
Crusade enthusiasm. But they were not the purpose of the Crusades. To
use a modern analogy, during the Second World War some American soldiers
committed crimes while overseas. They were arrested and punished for those
crimes. But the purpose of the Second World War was not to commit crimes.
Myth 6: The Crusades were so corrupt and vile that they even had
a Childrens Crusade.
The so-called "Childrens Crusade" of 1212 was neither
a Crusade nor an army of children. It was a particularly large eruption
of popular religious enthusiasm in Germany that led some young people,
mostly adolescents, to proclaim themselves Crusaders and begin marching
to the sea. Along the way they gathered plenty of popular support and
not a few brigands, robbers, and beggars as well. The movement splintered
in Italy and finally ended when the Mediterranean failed to dry up for
them to cross. Pope Innocent III did not call this "Crusade."
Indeed, he repeatedly urged non-combatants to stay at home, helping the
war effort through fasting, prayer, and alms. In this case, he praised
the zeal of the young who had marched so far, and then told them to go
Myth 7: Pope John Paul II apologized for the Crusades.
This is an odd myth, given that the pope was so roundly criticized for
failing to apologize directly for the Crusades when he asked forgiveness
from all those that Christians had unjustly harmed. It is true that John
Paul recently apologized to the Greeks for the Fourth Crusades sack
of Constantinople in 1204. But the pope at the time, Innocent III, expressed
similar regret. That, too, was a tragic misfire that Innocent had done
everything he could to avoid.
Myth 8: Muslims, who remember the Crusades vividly, have good reason
to hate the West.
Actually, the Muslim world remembers the Crusades about as well as the
Westin other words, incorrectly. That should not be surprising.
Muslims get their information about the Crusades from the same rotten
histories that the West relies on. The Muslim world used to celebrate
the Crusades as a great victory for them. They did, after all, win. But
western authors, fretting about the legacy of modern imperialism, have
recast the Crusades as wars of aggression and the Muslims as placid sufferers.
In so doing they have rescinded centuries of Muslim triumphs, offering
in their stead only the consolation of victimhood.
[This article originally appeared in the January/February 2002 issue
of Catholic Dossier.]
F. Madden is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of
History at Saint Louis University. He is author of A Concise History
of the Crusades and co-author of The Fourth Crusade.
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