Correcting the politically correct nonsense that has perverted reality way to long. Long overdue, to say the least.
In 2001, former president Bill Clinton delivered a speech at Georgetown University in which he discussed the West’s response to the recent terrorist attacks of September 11. The speech contained a short but significant reference to the crusades. Mr. Clinton observed that “when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem [in 1099], they . . . proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple Mount.” He cited the “contemporaneous descriptions of the event” as describing “soldiers walking on the Temple Mount . . . with blood running up to their knees.” This story, Mr. Clinton said emphatically, was “still being told today in the Middle East and we are still paying for it.”
This view of the crusades is not unusual. It pervades textbooks as well as popular literature. One otherwise generally reliable Western civilization textbook claims that “the Crusades fused three characteristic medieval impulses: piety, pugnacity, and greed. All three were essential.”(1) The film Kingdom of Heaven (2005) depicts crusaders as boorish bigots, the best of whom were torn between remorse for their excesses and lust to continue them. Even the historical supplements for role-playing games â€” drawing on supposedly more reliable sources â€” contain statements such as “The soldiers of the First Crusade appeared basically without warning, storming into the Holy Land with the avowed â€” literally â€” task of slaughtering unbelievers”;(2) “The Crusades were an early sort of imperialism”;(3) and “Confrontation with Islam gave birth to a period of religious fanaticism that spawned the terrible Inquisition and the religious wars that ravaged Europe during the Elizabethan era.”(4) The most famous semi-popular historian of the crusades, Sir Steven Runciman, ended his three volumes of magnificent prose with the judgment that the crusades were “nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.”(5)
The verdict seems unanimous. From presidential speeches to role-playing games, the crusades are depicted as a deplorably violent episode in which thuggish Westerners trundled off, unprovoked, to murder and pillage peace-loving, sophisticated Muslims, laying down patterns of outrageous oppression that would be repeated throughout subsequent history. In many corners of the Western world today, this view is too commonplace and apparently obvious even to be challenged.
But unanimity is not a guarantee of accuracy. What everyone “knows” about the crusades may not, in fact, be true. From the many popular notions about the crusades, let us pick four and see if they bear close examination.
Myth #1: The crusades represented an unprovoked attack by Western Christians on the Muslim world.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and even a cursory chronological review makes that clear. In a.d. 632, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica were all Christian territories. Inside the boundaries of the Roman Empire, which was still fully functional in the eastern Mediterranean, orthodox Christianity was the official, and overwhelmingly majority, religion. Outside those boundaries were other large Christian communities â€” not necessarily orthodox and Catholic, but still Christian. Most of the Christian population of Persia, for example, was Nestorian. Certainly there were many Christian communities in Arabia.
By a.d. 732, a century later, Christians had lost Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa, Spain, most of Asia Minor, and southern France. Italy and her associated islands were under threat, and the islands would come under Muslim rule in the next century. The Christian communities of Arabia were entirely destroyed in or shortly after 633, when Jews and Christians alike were expelled from the peninsula.(6) Those in Persia were under severe pressure. Two-thirds of the formerly Roman Christian world was now ruled by Muslims.
What had happened? Most people actually know the answer, if pressed â€” though for some reason they do not usually connect the answer with the crusades. The answer is the rise of Islam. Every one of the listed regions was taken, within the space of a hundred years, from Christian control by violence, in the course of military campaigns deliberately designed to expand Muslim territory at the expense of Islam’s neighbors. Nor did this conclude Islam’s program of conquest. The attacks continued, punctuated from time to time by Christian attempts to push back. Charlemagne blocked the Muslim advance in far western Europe in about a.d. 800, but Islamic forces simply shifted their focus and began to island-hop across from North Africa toward Italy and the French coast, attacking the Italian mainland by 837. A confused struggle for control of southern and central Italy continued for the rest of the ninth century and into the tenth. In the hundred years between 850 and 950, Benedictine monks were driven out of ancient monasteries, the Papal States were overrun, and Muslim pirate bases were established along the coast of northern Italy and southern France, from which attacks on the deep inland were launched. Desperate to protect victimized Christians, popes became involved in the tenth and early eleventh centuries in directing the defense of the territory around them.
The surviving central secular authority in the Christian world at this time was the East Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. Having lost so much territory in the seventh and eighth centuries to sudden amputation by the Muslims, the Byzantines took a long time to gain the strength to fight back. By the mid-ninth century, they mounted a counterattack on Egypt, the first time since 645 that they had dared to come so far south. Between the 940s and the 970s, the Byzantines made great progress in recovering lost territories. Emperor John Tzimiskes retook much of Syria and part of Palestine, getting as far as Nazareth, but his armies became overextended and he had to end his campaigns by 975 without managing to retake Jerusalem itself. Sharp Muslim counterattacks followed, and the Byzantines barely managed to retain Aleppo and Antioch.
The struggle continued unabated into the eleventh century. In 1009, a mentally deranged Muslim ruler destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and mounted major persecutions of Christians and Jews. He was soon deposed, and by 1038 the Byzantines had negotiated the right to try to rebuild the structure, but other events were also making life difficult for Christians in the area, especially the displacement of Arab Muslim rulers by Seljuk Turks, who from 1055 on began to take control in the Middle East. This destabilized the territory and introduced new rulers (the Turks) who were not familiar even with the patchwork modus vivendi that had existed between most Arab Muslim rulers and their Christian subjects. Pilgrimages became increasingly difficult and dangerous, and western pilgrims began banding together and carrying weapons to protect themselves as they tried to make their way to Christianity’s holiest sites in Palestine: notable armed pilgrimages occurred in 1064â€“65 and 1087â€“91.
In the western and central Mediterranean, the balance of power was tipping toward the Christians and away from the Muslims. In 1034, the Pisans sacked a Muslim base in North Africa, finally extending their counterattacks across the Mediterranean. They also mounted counterattacks against Sicily in 1062â€“63. In 1087, a large-scale allied Italian force sacked Mahdia, in present-day Tunisia, in a campaign jointly sponsored by Pope Victor III and the countess of Tuscany. Clearly the Italian Christians were gaining the upper hand.
But while Christian power in the western and central Mediterranean was growing, it was in trouble in the east. The rise of the Muslim Turks had shifted the weight of military power against the Byzantines, who lost considerable ground again in the 1060s. Attempting to head off further incursions in far-eastern Asia Minor in 1071, the Byzantines suffered a devastating defeat at Turkish hands in the battle of Manzikert. As a result of the battle, the Christians lost control of almost all of Asia Minor, with its agricultural resources and military recruiting grounds, and a Muslim sultan set up a capital in Nicaea, site of the creation of the Nicene Creed in a.d. 325 and a scant 125 miles from Constantinople.
Desperate, the Byzantines sent appeals for help westward, directing these appeals primarily at the person they saw as the chief western authority: the pope, who, as we have seen, had already been directing Christian resistance to Muslim attacks. In the early 1070s, the pope was Gregory VII, and he immediately began plans to lead an expedition to the Byzantines’ aid. He became enmeshed in conflict with the German emperors, however (what historians call “the Investiture Controversy”), and was ultimately unable to offer meaningful help. Still, the Byzantines persisted in their appeals, and finally, in 1095, Pope Urban II realized Gregory VII’s desire, in what turned into the First Crusade. Whether a crusade was what either Urban or the Byzantines had in mind is a matter of some controversy. But the seamless progression of events which lead to that crusade is not.
Far from being unprovoked, then, the crusades actually represent the first great western Christian counterattack against Muslim attacks which had taken place continually from the inception of Islam until the eleventh century, and which continued on thereafter, mostly unabated. Three of Christianity’s five primary episcopal sees (Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria) had been captured in the seventh century; both of the others (Rome and Constantinople) had been attacked in the centuries before the crusades. The latter would be captured in 1453, leaving only one of the five (Rome) in Christian hands by 1500. Rome was again threatened in the sixteenth century. This is not the absence of provocation; rather, it is a deadly and persistent threat, and one which had to be answered by forceful defense if Christendom were to survive. The crusades were simply one tool in the defensive options exercised by Christians.
To put the question in perspective, one need only consider how many times Christian forces have attacked either Mecca or Medina. The answer, of course, is never.(7)
Myth #2: Western Christians went on crusade because their greed led them to plunder Muslims in order to get rich.
Again, not true. One version of Pope Urban II’s speech at Clermont in 1095 urging French warriors to embark on what would become known as the First Crusade does note that they might “make spoil of [the enemy’s] treasures,”(8) but this was no more than an observation on the usual way of financing war in ancient and medieval society. And Fulcher of Chartres did write in the early twelfth century that those who had been poor in the West had become rich in the East as a result of their efforts on the First Crusade, obviously suggesting that others might do likewise.(9) But Fulcher’s statement has to be read in its context, which was a chronic and eventually fatal shortage of manpower for the defense of the crusader states. Fulcher was not being entirely deceitful when he pointed out that one might become rich as a result of crusading. But he was not being entirely straightforward either, because for most participants, crusading was ruinously expensive.
As Fred Cazel has noted, “Few crusaders had sufficient cash both to pay their obligations at home and to support themselves decently on a crusade.”(10) From the very beginning, financial considerations played a major role in crusade planning. The early crusaders sold off so many of their possessions to finance their expeditions that they caused widespread inflation. Although later crusaders took this into account and began saving money long before they set out, the expense was still nearly prohibitive. Despite the fact that money did not yet play a major role in western European economies in the eleventh century, there was “a heavy and persistent flow of money” from west to east as a result of the crusades, and the financial demands of crusading caused “profound economic and monetary changes in both western Europe and the Levant.”(11)
One of the chief reasons for the foundering of the Fourth Crusade, and its diversion to Constantinople, was the fact that it ran out of money before it had gotten properly started, and was so indebted to the Venetians that it found itself unable to keep control of its own destiny. Louis IX’s Seventh Crusade in the mid-thirteenth century cost more than six times the annual revenue of the crown.
The popes resorted to ever more desperate ploys to raise money to finance crusades, from instituting the first income tax in the early thirteenth century to making a series of adjustments in the way that indulgences were handled that eventually led to the abuses condemned by Martin Luther. Even by the thirteenth century, most crusade planners assumed that it would be impossible to attract enough volunteers to make a crusade possible, and crusading became the province of kings and popes, losing its original popular character. When the Hospitaller Master Fulk of Villaret wrote a crusade memo to Pope Clement V in about 1305, he noted that “it would be a good idea if the lord pope took steps enabling him to assemble a great treasure, without which such a passage [crusade] would be impossible.”(12) A few years later, Marino Sanudo estimated that it would cost five million florins over two years to effect the conquest of Egypt. Although he did not say so, and may not have realized it, the sums necessary simply made the goal impossible to achieve. By this time, most responsible officials in the West had come to the same conclusion, which explains why fewer and fewer crusades were launched from the fourteenth century on.
In short: very few people became rich by crusading, and their numbers were dwarfed by those who were bankrupted. Most medieval people were quite well aware of this, and did not consider crusading a way to improve their financial situations.(13)
Myth #3: Crusaders were a cynical lot who did not really believe their own religious propaganda; rather, they had ulterior, materialistic motives.
This has been a very popular argument, at least from Voltaire on. It seems credible and even compelling to modern people, steeped as they are in materialist worldviews. And certainly there were cynics and hypocrites in the Middle Ages â€” beneath the obvious differences of technology and material culture, medieval people were just as human as we are, and subject to the same failings.
However, like the first two myths, this statement is generally untrue, and demonstrably so. For one thing, the casualty rates on the crusades were usually very high, and many if not most crusaders left expecting not to return. At least one military historian has estimated the casualty rate for the First Crusade at an appalling 75 percent, for example.(14) The statement of the thirteenth-century crusader Robert of CrÃ©sÃ¨ques, that he had “come from across the sea in order to die for God in the Holy Land”(15) â€” which was quickly followed by his death in battle against overwhelming odds â€” may have been unusual in its force and swift fulfillment, but it was not an atypical attitude. It is hard to imagine a more conclusive way of proving one’s dedication to a cause than sacrificing one’s life for it, and very large numbers of crusaders did just that.
But this assertion is also revealed to be false when we consider the way in which the crusades were preached. Crusaders were not drafted. Participation was voluntary, and participants had to be persuaded to go. The primary means of persuasion was the crusade sermon, and one might expect to find these sermons representing crusading as profoundly appealing.
This is, generally speaking, not the case. In fact, the opposite is true: crusade sermons were replete with warnings that crusading brought deprivation, suffering, and often death. That this was the reality of crusading was well known anyway. As Jonathan Riley-Smith has noted, crusade preachers “had to persuade their listeners to commit themselves to enterprises that would disrupt their lives, possibly impoverish and even kill or maim them, and inconvenience their families, the support of which they would . . . need if they were to fulfill their promises.”(16)
So why did the preaching work? It worked because crusading was appealing precisely because it was a known and significant hardship, and because undertaking a crusade with the right motives was understood as an acceptable penance for sin. Far from being a materialistic enterprise, crusading was impractical in worldly terms, but valuable for one’s soul. There is no space here to explore the doctrine of penance as it developed in the late antique and medieval worlds, but suffice it to say that the willing acceptance of difficulty and suffering was viewed as a useful way to purify one’s soul (and still is, in Catholic doctrine today). Crusading was the near-supreme example of such difficult suffering, and so was an ideal and very thorough-going penance.
Related to the concept of penance is the concept of crusading as an act of selfless love, of “laying down one’s life for one’s friends.”(17) From the very beginning, Christian charity was advanced as a reason for crusading, and this did not change throughout the period. Jonathan Riley-Smith discussed this aspect of crusading in a seminal article well-known to crusade historians but inadequately recognized in the wider scholarly world, let alone by the general public. “For Christians . . . sacred violence,” noted Riley-Smith,
“cannot be proposed on any grounds save that of love, . . . [and] in an age dominated by the theology of merit this explains why participation in crusades was believed to be meritorious, why the expeditions were seen as penitential acts that could gain indulgences, and why death in battle was regarded as martyrdom. . . . As manifestations of Christian love, the crusades were as much the products of the renewed spirituality of the central Middle Ages, with its concern for living the vita apostolica and expressing Christian ideals in active works of charity, as were the new hospitals, the pastoral work of the Augustinians and Premonstratensians and the service of the friars. The charity of St. Francis may now appeal to us more than that of the crusaders, but both sprang from the same roots.”(18)
As difficult as it may be for modern people to believe, the evidence strongly suggests that most crusaders were motivated by a desire to please God, expiate their sins, and put their lives at the service of their “neighbors,” understood in the Christian sense.
Myth #4: The crusades taught Muslims to hate and attack Christians.
Part of the answer to this myth may be found above, under Myth #1. Muslims had been attacking Christians for more than 450 years before Pope Urban declared the First Crusade. They needed no incentive to continue doing so. But there is a more complicated answer here, as well.
Up until quite recently, Muslims remembered the crusades as an instance in which they had beaten back a puny western Christian attack. An illuminating vignette is found in one of Lawrence of Arabia’s letters, describing a confrontation during postâ€“World War I negotiations between the Frenchman StÃ©phen Pichon and Faisal al-Hashemi (later Faisal I of Iraq). Pichon presented a case for French interest in Syria going back to the crusades, which Faisal dismissed with a cutting remark: “But, pardon me, which of us won the crusades?”(19)
This was generally representative of the Muslim attitude toward the crusades before about World War I â€” that is, when Muslims bothered to remember them at all, which was not often. Most of the Arabic-language historical writing on the crusades before the mid-nineteenth century was produced by Arab Christians, not Muslims, and most of that was positive.(20) There was no Arabic word for “crusades” until that period, either, and even then the coiners of the term were, again, Arab Christians. It had not seemed important to Muslims to distinguish the crusades from other conflicts between Christianity and Islam.(21)
Nor had there been an immediate reaction to the crusades among Muslims. As Carole Hillenbrand has noted, “The Muslim response to the coming of the Crusades was initially one of apathy, compromise and preoccupation with internal problems.”(22) By the 1130s, a Muslim counter-crusade did begin, under the leadership of the ferocious Zengi of Mosul. But it had taken some decades for the Muslim world to become concerned about Jerusalem, which is usually held in higher esteem by Muslims when it is not held by them than when it is. Action against the crusaders was often subsequently pursued as a means of uniting the Muslim world behind various aspiring conquerors, until 1291, when the Christians were expelled from the Syrian mainland. And â€” surprisingly to Westerners â€” it was not Saladin who was revered by Muslims as the great anti-Christian leader. That place of honor usually went to the more bloodthirsty, and more successful, Zengi and Baibars, or to the more public-spirited Nur al-Din.
The first Muslim crusade history did not appear until 1899. By that time, the Muslim world was rediscovering the crusades â€” but it was rediscovering them with a twist learned from Westerners. In the modern period, there were two main European schools of thought about the crusades. One school, epitomized by people like Voltaire, Gibbon, and Sir Walter Scott, and in the twentieth century Sir Steven Runciman, saw the crusaders as crude, greedy, aggressive barbarians who attacked civilized, peace-loving Muslims to improve their own lot. The other school, more romantic and epitomized by lesser-known figures such as the French writer Joseph-FranÃ§ois Michaud, saw the crusades as a glorious episode in a long-standing struggle in which Christian chivalry had driven back Muslim hordes. In addition, Western imperialists began to view the crusaders as predecessors, adapting their activities in a secularized way that the original crusaders would not have recognized or found very congenial.
At the same time, nationalism began to take root in the Muslim world. Arab nationalists borrowed the idea of a long-standing European campaign against them from the former European school of thought â€” missing the fact that this was a serious mischaracterization of the crusades â€” and using this distorted understanding as a way to generate support for their own agendas. This remained the case until the mid-twentieth century, when, in Riley-Smith’s words, “a renewed and militant Pan-Islamism” applied the more narrow goals of the Arab nationalists to a worldwide revival of what was then called Islamic fundamentalism and is now sometimes referred to, a bit clumsily, as jihadism.(23) This led rather seamlessly to the rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, offering a view of the crusades so bizarre as to allow bin Laden to consider all Jews to be crusaders and the crusades to be a permanent and continuous feature of the West’s response to Islam.
Bin Laden’s conception of history is a feverish fantasy. He is no more accurate in his view about the crusades than he is about the supposed perfect Islamic unity which he thinks Islam enjoyed before the baleful influence of Christianity intruded. But the irony is that he, and those millions of Muslims who accept his message, received that message originally from their perceived enemies: the West.
So it was not the crusades that taught Islam to attack and hate Christians. Far from it. Those activities had preceded the crusades by a very long time, and stretch back to the inception of Islam. Rather, it was the West which taught Islam to hate the crusades. The irony is rich.
Back to the Present
Let us return to President Clinton’s Georgetown speech. How much of his reference to the First Crusade was accurate?
It is true that many Muslims who had surrendered and taken refuge under the banners of several of the crusader lords â€” an act which should have granted them quarter â€” were massacred by out-of-control troops. This was apparently an act of indiscipline, and the crusader lords in question are generally reported as having been extremely angry about it, since they knew it reflected badly on them.(24) To imply â€” or plainly state â€” that this was an act desired by the entire crusader force, or that it was integral to crusading, is misleading at best. In any case, John France has put it well: “This notorious event should not be exaggerated. . . . However horrible the massacre . . . it was not far beyond what common practice of the day meted out to any place which resisted.”(25) And given space, one could append a long and bloody list, stretching back to the seventh century, of similar actions where Muslims were the aggressors and Christians the victims. Such a list would not, however, have served Mr. Clinton’s purposes.
Mr. Clinton was probably using Raymond of Aguilers when he referred to “blood running up to [the] knees” of crusaders.(26) But the physics of such a claim are impossible, as should be apparent. Raymond was plainly both bragging and also invoking the imagery of the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation.(27) He was not offering a factual account, and probably did not intend the statement to be taken as such.
As for whether or not we are “still paying for it,” see Myth #4, above. This is the most serious misstatement of the whole passage. What we are paying for is not the First Crusade, but western distortions of the crusades in the nineteenth century which were taught to, and taken up by, an insufficiently critical Muslim world.
The problems with Mr. Clinton’s remarks indicate the pitfalls that await those who would attempt to explicate ancient or medieval texts without adequate historical awareness, and they illustrate very well what happens when one sets out to pick through the historical record for bits â€” distorted or merely selectively presented â€” which support one’s current political agenda. This sort of abuse of history has been distressingly familiar where the crusades are concerned.
But nothing is served by distorting the past for our own purposes. Or rather: a great many things may be served . . . but not the truth. Distortions and misrepresentations of the crusades will not help us understand the challenge posed to the West by a militant and resurgent Islam, and failure to understand that challenge could prove deadly. Indeed, it already has. It may take a very long time to set the record straight about the crusades. It is long past time to begin the task.