We are coming up on a thousand years, and Christians still haven’t made up for the Crusades. No matter how many times Billy Graham makes the most admired list, we’ll still have the Crusades to deal with. When President Obama encouraged humility in denouncing ISIS today in light of the Crusades from close to a millennium ago, he may have been making a clumsy moral equivalence argument, but he was only voicing what many Americans (and many Christians) have articulated before. Remember the faux confessional booths from way back in the 2000’s when Christians would apologize to non-Christians for the Crusades? If there is one thing in our collective history that we cannot apologize for enough it is the history conjured up by pictures like the one in this post.
Yet, for all the times we’ve lamented the Crusades, how many of us know more than two sentences about them? Isn’t it wise to know at least a little something about the Crusades before we borrow them to get an advanced degree in self-recrimination?
A few years ago I picked up a copy of The New Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden, a history professor at Saint Louis University. It’s a fascinating book. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more, but not too much (it’s only 225 pages), about the Crusades.
What Are We Talking About?
The Crusades refer to a series of military expeditions over several centuries, beginning with the First Crusade in 1096 through the end of the Fifth Crusade in 1221, and continuing on in more sporadic fashion up until the Reformation. The term “Crusade” is not a medieval word. It is a modern word. It comes from crucesignati (“those signed by the cross”), a term used occasionally after the twelfth century to refer to what we now call “crusaders.” Contrary to popular opinion, the Crusades did not begin as a holy war whose mission was to convert the heathen by the sword. In fact, very few of the crusaders saw their mission as an evangelistic one. The initial purpose of the Crusades, and the main military goal throughout the Middle Ages, was quite simply to reclaim Christian lands captured by Muslim armies.
The popular conception of barbaric, ignorant, cruel, and superstitious crusaders attacking peaceful, sophisticated Muslims comes largely from Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Talisman (1825) and Sir Steven Runciman’s three-volume History of the Crusades (1951-54), the latter of which concludes with the famous summation now shared by most everyone: “the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.”
Scott and Runciman did much to shape the entirely negative view of the Crusades, but it isn’t as if they had no material to work with. The Crusades were often barbaric and often produced spectacular failures. Children died needlessly. Coalitions splintered endlessly. Jews were sometimes persecuted mercilessly. Ancient cities were ransacked foolishly. And on occasion (e.g., the Wendish Crusade) infidels were forced to convert or die, while the crusaders holding the swords were guaranteed immortality. In short, many of the Christians who went to war under the sign of the cross conducted themselves as if they knew nothing of the Christ of the cross.
But that’s not the whole story. The Crusades is also the story of thousands of godly men, women, and children who sacrificed time, money, and health to reclaim holy lands in distant countries overrun by Muslims. The Christians of the East had suffered mightily at the hands of the Turks and Arabs. It was only right, it seemed to medieval Christians, to go and help their fellow Christians and reclaim their land and property.
Not What You May Think
Many crusaders were knights (and their families) who left lands and titles. They saw their journey to the Middle East as an act of piety, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the center of the earth and the center of their spiritual world. To be sure, the crusaders could be arrogant and savage, but they could also be pious, compassionate (e.g., the Hospitallers), and courageous.
And they did not always fail. The First Crusade, unlike most of the others, actually worked. Against all odds, a fractious group of Christians made their way from Western Europe to the Middle East and conquered two of the best-defended cities in the world (Antioch and Jerusalem). Their triumph was nothing short of remarkable, and for the crusaders, it signaled nothing less than the hand of God restoring his city to his people.
A popular poem of the fifteenth century captured the heartbeat of the crusading spirit:
Fifteenth century/ Our faith was strong in th’ Orient/ It ruled in all of Asia/ In Moorish lands and Africa/ But now for us these lands are gone/ ‘Twould even grieve the hardest stone…We perish sleeping one and all/ The wolf has come into the stall/ And steals the Holy Church’s sheep/ The while the shepherd lies asleep/ Four sisters of our Church you find/ They’re of the patriarchic kind/ Constantinople, Alexandria/ Jerusalem, Antiochia/ But they’ve been forfeited and sacked/ And soon the head will be attacked.
We are right to deplore the cruelty meted out by crusading Christians, but should not ignore their plight. Christians lands had been captured. Surely, they thought, this could not stand. For an American, it would have been as if Al-Qaeda sacked Washington D.C. following 9/11, set up shop for Bin Laden in the White House, and turned the Lincoln Memorial into a terrorist training center. It would be unthinkable, cowardly even, for no one to storm the city, liberate its captives, and return our nation’s capital to its rightful owners. We should never excuse the atrocities that occurred under the banner of the cross during the Crusades, but we should, at least, take pause to understand why they set out on what seems to us to be a fool’s errand.
We should also resist the temptation to blame present day Muslim extremism on the Crusades. This is not to say that the Crusades don’t loom large in the Islamic consciousness. It is to say that this was not always the case. The Crusades were always a big deal in the Christian West, but for Muslims, as late as the seventeenth century, it was just another futile attempt by the infidels to halt the inevitable expansion of Islam. From the time of the Prophet Mohammed through the Reformation, Muslims conquered three-fourths of Christian lands. Once the Muslims united under Saladin, the crusaders, themselves divided, were no match for the armies of Islam.
The Crusades were not a major factor in shaping the Islamic world. The Crusades were just another unsuccessful attempt to thwart the spread of Islam. The term for the Crusades, harb-al-salib, was only introduced in the Arab language in the mid-nineteenth century, and the first Arabic history of the Crusades was not written until 1899. Because the crusades were unsuccessful, they simply did not matter much to Muslims. But all this began to change when European nations colonized Muslim nations and brought their schools and textbooks which hailed the gallant crusaders and heroic knights who tried to bring Christianity and civilization to the Middle East. Like sports, like war, like life–when you’re winning, you don’t care who’s losing; but when you’re losing, it matters a lot who’s beating you.
A Little Caution Goes a Long Way
The point of this article is not to make us fans of the Crusades, but to make us more careful in our denunciation of them. We fight for nation-states and democracy. They fought for religion and holy lands. Their reasons for war seem wrong to us, but no more than our reasons would seem wrong to them. Madden writes:
It is easy enough for modern people to dismiss the crusades as morally repugnant and cynically evil. Such judgments, however, tell us more about the observer than the observed. They are based on uniquely modern (and, therefore, Western) values. If, from the safety of our modern world, we are quick to condemn the medieval crusader, we should be mindful that he would be just as quick to condemn us. Our infinitely more destructive wars waged for the sake of political and social ideologies would, in his opinion, be lamentable wastes of human life. In both societies, the medieval and the modern, people fight for what is most dear to them. That is fact of human nature that is not so changeable.
Maybe the crusaders can teach us something after all. Maybe their example can force us to examine what we hold most dear. In America this may be freedom, democracy, and a hard fought peace in a world of terror. In the church, we will establish different priorities.
We are in a battle and the Master has called us to fight–not with the weapons of the world, but with the word of God and prayer; not against our neighbors, but against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Some things are worth fighting for. Some things are worth dying for. Our land? Perhaps. Our Lord? Always. So let our struggle be valiant, our suffering be purposeful, and our strategy be Christ’s, who triumphed over the enemy not by taking life, but by giving his own.