September 2, 2010

G. K. Chesterton Vs the “black legend” of the Crusades

Every now and then I feel like paying tribute to the Crusades (click here to read all my posts about this subject), one of the most controversial and misinterpreted issues—mostly because of the shadow cast on them by the Enlightenment circles to use them as a weapon in their anti-religious campaigns—in Western intellectual, religious, and political history. So here is yet another blow to the “black legend” of the Crusades, worshipped by almost every sworn enemy of the West and its Judeo-Christian values and heritage. This time it is G. K. Chesterton’s turn to be the Advocate of the Christian Cause. Here is an excerpt from his 1920 The New Jerusalem (CHAPTER XI, THE MEANING OF THE CRUSADE) :

The critic of the Crusade talks as if it had sought out some inoffensive tribe or temple in the interior of Thibet, which was never discovered until it was invaded. They seem entirely to forget that long before the Crusaders had dreamed of riding to Jerusalem, the Moslems had almost ridden into Paris. They seem to forget that if the Crusaders nearly conquered Palestine, it was but a return upon the Moslems who had nearly conquered Europe. There was no need for them to argue by an appeal to reason, as I have argued above, that a religious division must make a difference; it had already made a difference. The difference stared them in the face in the startling transformation of Roman Barbary and of Roman Spain. In short it was something which must happen in theory and which did happen in practice; all expectation suggested that it would be so and all experience said it was so. Having thought it out theoretically and experienced it practically, they proceeded to deal with it equally practically. The first division involved every principle of the science of thought; and the last developments followed out every principle of the science of war. The Crusade was the counter-attack. It was the defensive army taking the offensive in its turn, and driving back the enemy to his base. And it is this process, reasonable from its first axiom to its last act, that Mr. Pound actually selects as a sort of automatic wandering of an animal. But a man so intelligent would not have made a mistake so extraordinary but for another error which it is here very essential to consider. To suggest that men engaged, rightly or wrongly, in so logical a military and political operation were only migrating like birds or swarming like bees is as ridiculous as to say that the Prohibition campaign in America was only an animal reversion towards lapping as the dog lappeth, or Rowland Hill's introduction of postage stamps an animal taste for licking as the cat licks. Why should we provide other people with a remote reason for their own actions, when they themselves are ready to tell us the reason, and it is a perfectly reasonable reason?
I have compared this pompous imposture of scientific history to the pompous and clumsy building of the scientific Germans on the Mount of Olives, because it substitutes in the same way a modern stupidity for the medieval simplicity. But just as the German Hospice after all stands on a fine site, and might have been a fine building, so there is after all another truth, somewhat analogous, which the German historians of the Folk-Wanderings might possibly have meant, as distinct from all that they have actually said. There is indeed one respect in which the case of the Crusade does differ very much from modern political cases like prohibition or the penny post. I do not refer to such incidental peculiarities as the fact that Prohibition could only have succeeded through the enormous power of modern plutocracy, or that even the convenience of the postage goes along with an extreme coercion by the police. It is a somewhat deeper difference that I mean; and it may possibly be what these critics mean. But the difference is not in the evolutionary, but rather the revolutionary spirit.
The First Crusade was not a racial migration; it was something much more intellectual and dignified; a riot. In order to understand this religious war we must class it, not so much with the wars of history as with the revolutions of history. As I shall try to show briefly on a later page, it not only had all the peculiar good and the peculiar evil of things like the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, but it was a more purely popular revolution than either of them. The truly modern mind will of course regard the contention that it was popular as tantamount to a confession that it was animal. In these days when papers and speeches are full of words like democracy and self-determination, anything really resembling the movement of a mass of angry men is regarded as no better than a stampede of bulls or a scurry of rats. The new sociologists call it the herd instinct, just as the old reactionaries called it the many-headed beast. But both agree in implying that it is hardly worth while to count how many head there are of such cattle. In face of such fashionable comparisons it will seem comparatively mild to talk of migration as it occurs among birds or insects. Nevertheless we may venture to state with some confidence that both the sociologists and the reactionaries are wrong. It does not follow that human beings become less than human because their ideas appeal to more and more of humanity. Nor can we deduce that men are mindless solely from the fact that they are all of one mind. In plain fact the virtues of a mob cannot be found in a herd of bulls or a pack of wolves, any more than the crimes of a mob can be committed by a flock of sheep or a shoal of herrings. Birds have never been known to besiege and capture an empty cage of an aviary, on a point of principle, merely because it had kept a few other birds in captivity, as the mob besieged and captured the almost empty Bastille, merely because it was the fortress of a historic tyranny. And rats have never been known to die by thousands merely in order to visit a particular trap in which a particular rat had perished, as the poor peasants of the First Crusade died in thousands for a far-off sight of the Sepulchre or a fragment of the true cross. In this sense indeed the Crusade was not rationalistic, if the rat is the only rationalist. But it will seem more truly rational to point out that the inspiration of such a crowd is not in such instincts as we share with the animals, but precisely in such ideas as the animals never (with all their virtues) understand.

What is peculiar about the First Crusade is that it was in quite a new and abnormal sense a popular movement. I might almost say it was the only popular movement there ever was in the world. For it was not a thing which the populace followed; it was actually a thing which the populace led. It was not only essentially a revolution, but it was the only revolution I know of in which the masses began by acting alone, and practically without any support from any of the classes. When they had acted, the classes came in; and it is perfectly true, and indeed only natural, that the masses alone failed where the two together succeeded. But it was the uneducated who educated the educated. The case of the Crusade is emphatically not a case in which certain ideas were first suggested by a few philosophers, and then preached by demagogues to the democracy. This was to a great extent true of the French Revolution; it was probably yet more true of the Russian Revolution; and we need not here pause upon the fine shade of difference that Rousseau was right and Karl Marx was wrong. In the First Crusade it was the ordinary man who was right or wrong. He came out in a fury at the insult to his own domestic poker or private carving-knife. He was not armed with new weapons of wit and logic served round from the arsenal of an academy. There was any amount of wit and logic in the academies of the Middle Ages; but the typical leader of the Crusade was not Abelard or Aquinas but Peter the Hermit, who can hardly be called even a popular leader, but rather a popular flag. And it was his army, or rather his enormous rabble, that first marched across the world to die for the deliverance of Jerusalem.

~ First written for The Metaphysical Peregrine ~


  1. No doubt it's true that the First Crusade was more a fully justified reaction to an invasion, than a pretext to invade. But one can't say that the Second Crusade was a justified success, and the Third Crusade was even worse.

    Although it would be much preferable to raise glorious banners to worthy causes, the facts will always remain that the Fourth Crusade- to which those who wish to defend the Crusader wars never seem to want to refer- was a shameful and unjustified disaster.
    To my knowledge the only Pope who, on two occasions- in Rome and in Istanbul- made formal apologies for the consequences of the Fourth Crusade, was Pope John Paul II.

  2. Chesterton provided a very insightful and lucid analysis of what the Crusades were all about. But if we really understand what the Crusades were all about, we won't be easily fooled by ideologues such as Osama bin Laden or his various Western counterparts.

  3. Great piece, great writing. It will never be repeated enough: the myth that the Crusades were unprovoked, imperialist actions against the peaceful, indigenous Muslim population, as well as for instance the depiction of Saladin as merciful and magnanimous, are simply false and not supported by any historical evidence. The Crusades only started after five centuries of Islamic Jihad had conquered and annihilated, or forcibly converted, over two thirds of what had formerly been the Christian world. Shortly after the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem in 638, Christian pilgrims were harassed, massacred and crucified. Muslim governors extorted ransom money from Pilgrims and ransacked churches.
    In the 8th Century Muslim rulers banned all displays of the Cross in Jerusalem. They also increased the penalty tax (Jizya) on Christians and forbade Christians to engage in any religious instruction, even of their own children! In 772, the Calipha al Mansur ordered the hands of all Christians and Jews in Jerusalem to be branded. In 923, a new wave of destruction of churches was launched by the Muslim rulers… And so on. The list is endless…

  4. A thought-provoking post from an outstanding blog ...

  5. An absolutely stunning piece, thanks for sharing!

  6. "If crusades to the Levant were imperialistic, they were expressing a form of imperialism very different from the 19th-century variety, because it was governed by the need to regain or hold the ruined fragments of a cave in the middle of Jerusalem. For most crusaders there was no prospect of material gain, only great expenditure on enterprises that were arduous and dangerous. Christian holy war is abhorrent to us, but we have to accept that fact that our ancestors were attracted by a vibrant ideology, based on a coherent theology which to some extent constrained it. Crusades cannot be defined solely in terms of inter-faith relations as many of them were waged against opponents who were not Muslim, but, what- ever the theatre of war, an expedition could not be launched to spread Christianity or Christian rule, but had to be a defensive reaction to an injury perpetrated by another."

    Jonathan Riley-Smith, "Truth is the First Victim" Timesonline May 5, 2005 (