Demystifying the Crusades

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Chris Du-Pond

“Religion poisons everything,” declared the late Christopher Hitchens. From this type of thought, critics condemn the crusades, and other persecutions that have scarred human history at the hands of the Christian church. With the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the crusades have gone back into the spotlight and score high in the list of religiously motivated acts violence. It is only natural for many of us to ask, “How could Christians have done this?”

In this document I will expose several myths about the crusades to dispel common misunderstandings about these “holly” wars.

History vs. Hollywood

I recently saw again the 2005 Hollywood blockbuster “Kingdom of Heaven,” directed by Ridley Scott. I found the film entertaining. I have always been fascinated by castles, knights, and chivalry. But this time—after having carefully reviewed historical accounts of the crusades from reputable sources—the film left me with a feeling of unfulfilled expectations. The movie depicts coward Christian clerics preaching hatred against Muslims within a pool of often stupid and fanatical crusaders. Jerusalem is featured as a progressive postmodern society where all religions coexist in harmony and Saladin is the personification of tolerance.

Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith of Cambridge University, an expert on the history of the Crusades, said the plot was “complete and utter nonsense… It’s rubbish. It’s not historically accurate at all.”[1] These comments from a bona-fide historian can also apply to our culture regarding the crusades. People can’t distinguish between fact and fiction, and movies like “Kingdom of Heaven” just add to the confusion of an already ignorant populace.

So, what are some of the common myths about the crusades in our westerner culture?

Myth #1: The Crusades were unprovoked religious wars organized against tolerant Muslims

 The crusades were an extremely complex, lengthy and often misunderstood phenomenon. Here we will refer to the crusades, as the military campaigns to the Middle-East officially called by the Pope to fight Muslims with the purpose of recovering the Holy Lands in exchange for indulgences and other privileges granted by the Church. This was followed by a vow, or to “take the cross” by attaching a cross to his or her clothing until the vow was fulfilled.

It is absolutely certain that the crusades were not proactive aggression but a defensive and reactive move to Muslim expansionism. In his missionary journeys, the Apostle Paul planted the very first churches in Asia Minor (Turkey) and Macedonia (Greece). Within his lifetime we know that Christianity expanded to North Africa[2] and even Rome. By the eleventh century, Christians were faced with a forceful and fanatical faction of Islamists known as the Seljuk Turks. The Turks invaded Asia Minor—Christian lands—and desecrated shrines in the Holy Land despite desperate efforts of the Byzantine Empire to counter. At the battle of Manzikert, emperor Romanus IV was captured and his forces scattered. This event precipitated the very first crusade when Emperor Alexius I Comnenus sent an emissary to the Pope to request assistance. Subsequently on November 27th 1095, Pope Urban II preached the first crusade. The religious and political leaders understood the price of staying passive after the Islamic invasion of Spain. Charles Martel stopped the Umayyad Muslim advance into Western Europe from Iberia at the Battle of Tours (732) and other westerner Christians saw it as their duty to stop the Muslim advance again while recovering the lands previously consecrated to Christ. The Muslim was the “provocateur” and the Christian assumed a defensive position. It has also been said—and portrayed, just as in Hollywood movies—that the Muslims were remarkably tolerant with their conquered subjects and treated them with respect. But most of the time, the subjects were “free to choose” Islam as an alternative to death or enslavement.[3] In 705, the Muslim conquerors of Armenia assembled all the Christian nobility and burned them to death.[4] From these facts war ensued. War is a nasty business and such is human nature that atrocities will be unavoidable on both sides of the conflict. Jews were massacred in Medina by Muhammad himself (about 700), beheaded after being forced to dig their own graves.[5] In 1570 Muslim invaders murdered thousands of Christian civilians in Cyprus.[6] We can see from these examples that the crusaders were not worse than Muslims, but to portray Islam as “tolerant and multicultural” and the crusades as proactive aggressive movements is to ignore history. Islam and the westerner world had been at war already centuries past. The Crusades were just another episode and a continuation of that ongoing conflict.

Myth #2: Crusaders were mainly motivated by riches and plunder

It has been widely believed that the core of the crusading armies was composed of the scum of society and of noble “second sons” with a noting-to-loose mentality and a fixation to gain riches from plunder and sacking. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even though there was indeed much plundering it was not enough to cover the enormous cost of a crusade. “The total cost of the crusade of 1248-54 to King Louis IX of France,” wrote Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith “was estimated at 1,537,570 livres or more than six times his annual income…he [also] spent over 1,000,000 livres in Palestine after his disastrous campaign in Egypt was over.”[7] Rulers soon realized they needed to tax their subjects heavily, and they did so throughout the entire 13th century. Even the clergy placed chests in churches and granted limited indulgences to the willing givers.[8] Crusaders had to lease or sell property to finance their trips. It can be safely concluded that “[t]he last thing most sensible crusaders would have expected was material gain.”[9] In fact, about 85 to 90 percent Frankish Knights did not respond to the pope’s call to the crusade.[10]

What then motivated the crusades? The crusade was primarily attractive as an act of self-sanctification and ultimate salvation trough works (military pilgrimage) and secondary about a service to God, pilgrims and the Christian church. The main benefit to the crusader was the personal expiation of sins and the ultimate promise of heaven. The crusade became a Church-sponsored “just war” to protect the innocent pilgrims, recover Christian lands and stop Muslim invaders motivated by personal gain. It was a noble and worthy cause propelled by all the wrong reasons: indulgences.

Myth #3: A Christian should not be involved in war

A fact that causes a lot of confusion amongst Christians and skeptics about the crusades is the involvement of the Church in war. Is the task of the Church to raise armies and wage war? I say no. There isn’t any indication in Scripture that the Church should intervene militarily! That is the task of the state. The Apostle Paul commanded that “every person be subject to the governing authorities” and to be aware that if “you do wrong, be afraid, for he [State] does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”[11] Paul left the Church out of the war-waging business. But this is not to say that individual Christians shouldn’t be involved in war (as long as it is under the authority of the state). There are wars that are necessary. If World War II had not ended with an allied victory, all Jews would have been likely exterminated along with the enemies of Nazism. Furthermore, when the twin towers collapsed on 9/11 and the President declared “war on terror” one would have been hard-pressed to find a single Christian that opposed the declaration. Even eminent theologians like Aquinas—developer of the “just war” theory—and Martin Luther did not shy away from war, but they both agreed that armed conflict is the business of the state and not the Church. “The second man,” wrote Luther “whose place it is to fight against the Turk is Emperor Charles, or whoever is emperor; for the Turk attacks his subjects and his empire, and it is his duty, as a regular ruler appointed by God, to defend his own.”[12]

Not even Jesus deterred Christians from combat. When he encountered a centurion in Capernaum and healed his servant he simply said “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.”[13] Jesus could have easily asked him to leave the roman military ranks but he did not. The task of the Church is to promote peace, pray for the government and be a benefactor to the weak, sick and poor. Not to yield the sword. That is left to the government.

Myth #4: Saladin was a Just and peace-seeking ruler

In 1825 Sir Walter Scott published an influential novel, The Talisman. This work portrayed Saladin as a “chivalric warrior of courtesy, mercy, and great wisdom and toleration”[14] while depicting the Christians as “barbaric and ignorant”[15] The novel helped to institute the mythical Saladin image at the time and remains also influential today. Then came Sir Steven Runciman’s tree-volume History of the Crusades echoing Sir Walter Scott but with a scholarly tone. The result was the modern view of Saladin as a heroic and wise paladin and the crusaders as bloodthirsty warmongers and barbarians. This view is held today by many.

In reality Saladin was indeed generous to the enemies he respected—like Richard I. But he also cheerfully participated in the horrors of war. One such moment was the battle of Hattin in July 1187. After an arduous and ill-prepared encounter with Saladin, the crusaders fought the Muslim army as long as they could, but the battle was lost. As a result, the majority of the Christian army was either captured or slaughtered. King Guy de Lusignan, and the Master of the Temple—the leader of the order of the Knights Templar—were granted mercy, but Reynald de Chatillon was beheaded by Saladin himself. [16]  He “also ordered the mass execution of all Hospitallers and Templars, with the exception of the Master Himself.”[17]

Part of Saladin’s booty at the battle of Hattin was “The True Cross.”[18] Saladin paraded the relic upside down in the streets of Damascus.[19] This was sacrilege and a great insult to the crusaders.

Some historians[20] are also quick to contrast the massacre of Muslims in Jerusalem during the first crusade (1099)[21] with the mercy extended by Saladin when he took it back in 1187. As a by-product of the battle of Hattin, the crusader states lost the bulk of their defensive garrisons and Jerusalem was crowded with refugees—mainly women and children—from surrounding cities before Saladin laid siege to it. What most historians fail to mention is that in siege warfare the “rule of war” was that “if a city did not surrender before facing the attackers to take it by storm (which inevitably caused a very high rate of casualties in the besieging force), the inhabitants could expect to be massacred as an example to others in the future.”[22] If the Muslims had surrendered in 1099 they would have been given terms preventing a massacre. In fact, when Saladin showed “mercy” after the surrender of Jerusalem (1187)—and spared the lives of the defenders—he was doing nothing but to follow conventional siege-war etiquette.

Myth #5: For centuries the Muslim world has remembered the crusades with resentment and bitterness

This is simply false. The crusades were virtually unknown incidents in the Muslim world until Sayyid ‘Ali al-Hariri published the first Muslim history of the crusades in 1899. This publication emerged with political opposition overtones since, at the time, the Ottoman Empire was in crisis. Sultan Abdulhamid II was struggling to maintain unity and even his role as caliph was seriously challenged. He made it abundantly clear and public that the Europeans had embarked on a new “crusade.”[23] Sayyid echoed the message by writing that “[o]ur most glorious sultan, Abdulhamid II, has rightly remarked that Europe is now carrying out a crusade against us in the form of a political campaign.”[24] As can be seen, the first “histories” that the Muslims received of the crusades were heavily biased and anti-westerner. It did not help that in 1898, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II paid homage to Saladin’s tomb in Damascus depicting him as a chivalrous hero.

Before Sayyid’s “history” was published, the crusades were minor and uninteresting events. The crusades were lumped together by Muslims with other conflicts against the “infidel” westerners. The crusades were as unsuccessful as they were irrelevant in Muslim’s eyes. They simply did not matter. Even Saladin was not seen as a hero by Muslims as he was a Kurd—disliked by Arabs and Turks.

Myth #6: All Crusaders were Christians

First of all, what is a Christian? In simple terms a Christian is a follower of the deeds and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth; someone striving to follow in his footsteps and mimic His behavior as the result of an deep internal transformation by the Holly Spirit. Everything else is human folly. Through the ages, many have professed to be Christians but their deeds are incongruent with Christ’s revelation in the Gospels as depicted in the New Testament. Jesus said, “[n]ot everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”[25] When we look at some of the atrocities committed by the crusaders and compare them to the gospels, can we honestly say Jesus would condone the behavior? No honest truth-seeking follower of Christ would.

Martin Luther captured this idea when he wrote:

They [the crusaders] undertook to fight against the Turk under the name of Christ, and taught men and stirred them up to do this, as though our people were an army of Christians against the Turks, who were enemies of Christ; and this is straight against Christ’s doctrine and name. It is against His doctrine, because He says that Christians shall not resist evil, shall not fight or quarrel, not take revenge or insist on rights. It is against His name, because in such an army there are scarcely five Christians, and perhaps worse people in the eyes of God than are the Turks; and yet they would all bear the name of Christ. This is the greatest of all sins and one that no Turk commits, for Christ’s name is used for sin and shame and thus dishonored.[26]

Even if there were many Christians in the crusades, blaming all of Christianity for the sins of some is a type of ad hominem fallacy known as guilt by association. Many times sincere Christians sin, but when they do, they do so against Christ’s command. In the case of the crusades, however, it would not be uncharacteristic to say that the majority were probably not true Christians.

Myth #7: The crusades were also waged against the Jews

During the crusades Jews suffered violet attacks in Germany in 1096 and 1146, England in 1190 (particularly in York) and in France in 1251 and 1320.[27] In 1306 king Philip IV claimed the wealth and property of all Jews in France and then expelled them from the kingdom.[28] Some of these incidents were opportunistic in nature but most were motivated or justified due to the identification of Christ’s suffering and the labeling of Jews as Jesus-killers. Solomon Bar Simpson captures this sentiment as Jews from Cologne were put to the sword:

The [Jewish] martyrs endured the extreme penalty normally inflicted only upon guilty of murder. Yet, it must be stated with certainty that God is righteous judge, and we are to blame. Then the evil waters prevailed. The enemy unjustly caused them of evil acts they did not do, declaring: “You are the children of those who killed our object of veneration, hanging him on a tree;”[29]

These crimes left the Jewish community with an understandable distrust of crusaders. But the fact is that the crusades were never called to inflict harm to the Jews. Bernard de Clarivaux, a church leader during the second crusade strongly condemned a fellow Cistercian monk—and in fact sent him back to his convent—named Radulf when he started preaching against the Jews.[30] When in 1096 Count Emicho of Leisengen attacked Jews in Speyer, the local bishop took them under his protection. In this incident 12 Jews were killed. The pattern repeated when Emicho moved to Worms, Mainz, Cologne and Metz. In all these instances the local bishop tried—most times unsuccessfully—to protect the local Jewish settlements. The Pope also condemned these attacks in the strongest terms, but there was little he could do. This behavior was not only condemned by the Church but by Christ himself.

“Church leaders tried to halt that line of reasoning [Jewish cleansing], but once they had taken the cork out of the bottle, they could not put it back in.”[31] However “[n]o crusade was actually proclaimed against the Jews.”[32]

Final Thoughts

The behavior of the Crusaders is often used as evidence to associate overall Christianity with crimes against humanity and even as an argument against God’s goodness. Much more can be said about myths and distorted views about the crusades—that survive in the essence of movies like “Kingdom of Heaven”—but these were short-lived reactionary and defensive military actions instigated by Catholic Popes to reclaim lands from Muslim invaders. Atrocities were committed on both sides of the conflict. The idea that soldiers dying in a crusade would gain eternal life is not to be found in the Bible and resembles more radical Islam than it does orthodox Christianity. But this does nothing to invalidate the teachings of Christ or the true essence of Christianity: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “[y]ou shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”[33]

[1] Charlotte Edwardes, “Ridley Scott’s new Crusades film ‘panders to Osama bin Laden’.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/1452000/Ridley-Scotts-new-Crusades-film-panders-to-Osama-bin-Laden.html (accessed August 16, 2013).

[2] We know from the book of Acts 18:24 that Apollos was a native of Alexandria. Also that Egypt was the cradle of Christian monasticism as early as 140 A.D. prompted by the writing of the Shepherd of Hermas.

[3] Stark, God’s Battalions, 26.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jonathan Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 43-4.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 73.

[10] Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (New York: HarperCollins e-books, 2009), 113.

[11] Rom. 13:1,4. All Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[12] Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther Vol. 5 (Oregon: AGES Software, 1997), 79, accessed August 16, 2013, http://www.holycrossdakotadunes.org/resources/Luther/Luther_Philidelphia_Edition_Vol_5.pdf, AGES Digital Library.

[13] Mat. 8:13.

[14] Thomas F. Madden, The New Concise History of The Crusades (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006), 214.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 76.

[17] Ibid.

[18] The “True Cross” was famous relic thought to be part of the original cross where Jesus was crucified. It disappeared from historical records after the battle of Hattin. It was believed that a Christian army marching with the cross was unbeatable.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Edward Gibbon, Hugh Moffett and Dana Carleton (to name a few) have all portrayed Saladin as a perfect example of chivalry in their published work.

[21] It is also a myth that when the crusaders took Jerusalem they massacred every man woman and child until the streets ran “ankle deep with blood” as Raymond of Aguilers reported. This is the chief incident commonly used to vilify the crusades. “By the standards of the time,” wrote Thomas Madden, “adhered to by both Christians and Muslims, the crusaders would have been justified in putting the entire population to the sword…despite latter highly exaggerated reports, however, that is not what happened. It is true that many of the inhabitants, both Muslim and Jew, were killed in the initial fray. Yet many were also allowed to purchase their freedom or were simply expelled from the city. Later stories of the streets of Jerusalem coursing with knee-high rivers of blood were never meant to be taken seriously. Medieval people knew such a thing to be an impossibility. Modern people, unfortunately, often do not.” Ibid.,34.

[22] Stark, God’s Battalions, 158.

[23] Jonathan Riley-Smith et al., The Crusades: A history ( London: Yale University Press, 2005), 305.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Mat. 7:21

[26] Luther, Works of Martin Luther, 64.Emphasis mine.

[27] Norman Housley, Contesting the Crusades (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 161.

[28] Madden, The Crusades, 191.

[29] Solomon Bar Simpson, “Chronicle,” in Sholmo Eidelberg, The Jews and the Crusaders: The Hebrew Chronicles of the First and Second Crusades (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977), 25.

[30] Madden, The Crusades, 54

[31] Jonathan Riley-Smith, “Every Christian reformation is accompanied by violence,” Christian History, no. 40 (1993), 40.

[32] Jonathan Riley-Smith. “Rethinking the Crusades.” First Things. March 2000, 20-23, http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0042.html (accessed September 3 2013)

[33] Mar. 12:30-31.

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