February 9, 2010

The real history of the Crusades (repetita juvant)

The Crusades are one the central and most important aspects of medieval history. But, as I have already pointed out here (and here), they are also one of the most mischaracterized aspects of the entire history of Western civilization. Often misunderstood by historians and, consequently, by media and public opinion, Crusades and Crusaders—even before September 11, when they became a topical subject—have been frequently misused for political and propaganda purposes. To make an example, in a 1998 manifesto, cosigned by the leaders of Islamist groups in Egypt, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, Osama bin Laden declared war against the “Jews and the Crusaders.” Of course, basically the Americans are the Crusaders here.

As a result of these misunderstandings, as historian Thomas Madden says, the Crusades are generally portrayed as a series of “holy wars led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics,” and “the epitome of self-righteousness and intolerance, a black stain on the history of the Catholic Church in particular and Western civilization in general,” while the Crusaders were portrayed as “a breed of proto-imperialists,” who introduced “Western aggression to the peaceful Middle East.” Unfortunately, this is historically false. Let’s see what Madden has to say (“The Real History of the Crusades”):

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.

For more information on the topic, see also The Crusades: When Christendom Pushed Back.

These truths cannot be emphasized enough. As Goethe once said, “Truth must be repeated again and again because error is constantly being preached round about us.”

Thomas F. Madden is associate professor and chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University. He is the author of numerous works, including The New Concise History of the Crusades.


  1. One of my favorite subjects! I recommend Madden to everyone. Islamists apparently learned the lesson correctly; saw their first imperialist foray into Europe fail, and are now doing a soft invasion of Europe. No chance of retaliation from Europe this time either. They're filling the void left by the abandonment of Christianity. Their population is growing by leaps and bounds, and Europe's is quickly shrinking. Let's see, big population vs little population, fascist ideology vs no ideology except appeasement. Gee, wonder who'll win this round?

  2. Going to war as a penitential act of love and charity?

    Give me a break.

    War is never an act of love or charity. At best it is a necessary expedient to protect oneself from aggression, and it is never an ideal solution. It always costs innocent lives and it always diverts resources away from productive activities.

    When the aggression of one group of people against another cannot be deterred, as was the case with the Islamic hordes of the 11th century against the Christian nations, the British against the American colonists in the 18th century and the Nazis against their neighbors in the 20th century, it is sometimes necessary to go to war.

    That is neither love nor charity. It is choosing something bad in order to avoid the consequences of something even worse.

  3. Defending Europe against Muslim invaders was obligatory, but invading Muslim territories for religious motives, would of course be another argument.

    I would much prefer to go along with a glorified version of the 'truth' but unfortunately there are other fateful versions that we should also consider. In view of this allow me be the Devil's Advocate.

    The Second and Third Crusade were failures, the latter leading to Christian powers arguing over spoils of war and a treaty stating that Jerusalem would remain under Muslim control but allowing unarmed, Christian pilgrims the right to visit the city. This however was not satisfactory for the Christian powers and it led to the Fourth Crusade.
    The original intention was to conquer Jerusalem but instead of this the Western European Crusaders invaded Constantinople, which was then an Eastern Orthodox Christian city, and the capital of the Byzantine Empire. This caused the ultimate great division between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

    Amongst other observations the Sack of Constantinople was alluded to by Speros Vryonis in Byzantium and Europe as 'indescribable':

    The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art, an emporium of such incredible wealth that the Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered (they were themselves semi-Byzantines) and saved much of it, the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church's holy vessels. The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople. The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Crusading movement thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.

  4. @ Rich:

    The exact statement is that “They [The Crusaders] were keenly aware of their sinfulness and eager to undertake the hardships of the Crusade as a penitential act of charity and love.” Which is different from saying that war “is” a penitential act of love and charity. However, perspective or if you prefer, “diachronicity,” is necessary. We need to refer to phenomena (ie war) as they change through time. Thus, what was once conceived as a penitential act of charity and love, now appears as something quite differently.

  5. @Mirino:

    Well, it seems to me that the more one takes the role of the devil’s advocate, the more he gets to like it … ;-)

    But, joking apart, this is how Madden concludes his article:

    Were the Crusades really a failure? Sure, there was no Charles Martel and Battle of Tours, no Duke of Wellington at Waterloo; there was no history-changing engagement where we could say, ah, that is where we slew the dragon or “this was their finest hour.” And they accomplished none of their stated goals. But the Crusades era might have constituted a “holding action,” a time when Christendom was pushed toward the abyss and, outweighed and wobbling, pushed back. Of course, this isn’t the fashionable view. But it is easy today to characterize those medieval warriors any way we wish; they are no longer around to defend themselves. But had they not defended the West, we might not be troubling over the past at all — because we might not have a present.

  6. The ‘Devil’s Advocate’ reference was meant to soften the blow of offering historic facts that might not contribute positively towards defending an historic account. As we are generally on the same wave length it’s not a role that interests me or appeals to me as a rule, and less so as an invited contributor.
    In this particular case I would prefer that it be regarded more as a moral obligation,
    the responsibility of a contributor who feels that he or she should offer another, valid opinion on a particular, historical subject that now seems to be regaining in importance and significance.

    At one time history could depend on the nationality, the political and religious tendencies, and maybe the particular frame of mind of the historian when the facts were related. The English version of the Boer War doesn’t exactly correspond with the Dutch version, for example. But today the international wealth of information is such that it’s less easy to successfully create historic reinterpretations to correspond with what one personally wishes to convey.

    This shouldn’t be taken as any sweeping judgement on Thomas Madden’s book. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading it therefore I’m not qualified to judge. I certainly go along with his observation on the Medieval defence of Europe, of European values and religion.

    But the important repercussions created by the Fourth Crusade are such that if it were not properly referred to, wouldn’t this be incorrect and incomplete even in A New Concise History of the Crusades?

    Often in history there are incidents, causes, interests and circumstances that interweave themselves into provoking a positive or a negative effect. This was certainly the case regarding the Sac of Constantinople.

    Because of this, it’s an interesting subject, and although it might now be considered an inopportune reminder- the least said about the better, the opposite could well be the case. For an article on it might also be timely proof that Europeans are not afraid of re-airing and readmitting the Medieval errors of their forefathers, because, needless to say, there is no question in their minds that such shameful history will ever be repeated.