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 Muslim world.
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.
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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