In defense of the Crusades

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Livonian Brothers of the Sword

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Livonian Brothers of the Sword

Livonian Brothers of the Sword

Livonian Brothers of the Sword

It’s been a week since President Obama had the chutzpah to declare, after denouncing ISIL (“a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism”): “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ” — a Benghazi-like pronouncement that Fox News is still on his case about.

As a card-carrying (if mostly non-practicing) medieval historian, I feel honor-bound to weigh in on the liberation of the Holy Land at the end of the 11th century. Let’s begin with Thomas Madden in First Things, defending the Crusades against remarks by President Clinton in the wake of 9/11. These military expeditions, writes Madden, met the criteria of medieval just war theory, intended as they were to stop Muslim aggression against Eastern Christianity.

But the Crusades were not just wars. They were holy wars, and that is what made them different from what came before. They were made holy not by their target but by the Crusaders’ sacrifice. The Crusade was a pilgrimage and thereby an act of penance. When Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095, he created a model that would be followed for centuries. Crusaders who undertook that burden with right intention and after confessing their sins would receive a plenary indulgence. The indulgence was a recognition that they undertook these sacrifices for Christ, who was crucified again in the tribulations of his people.

OK, then, let’s stipulate that the Crusaders — so called because they wore the cross — were all about getting their sins remitted. Now let’s turn to the main Christian chronicler of the First Crusade, Fulcher of Chartres, who was an eyewitness to both Urban’s initial summons and the capture of Jerusalem. Here’s how he describes the final, uh, battle:

On top of Solomon’s Temple, to which they had climbed in fleeing, many were shot to death with arrows and cast down headlong from the roof. Within this Temple about ten thousand were beheaded. If you had been there, your feet would have been stained up to the ankles with the blood of the slain. What more shall I tell: Not one of them was allowed to live. They did not spare the women and children.

It’s possible, of course, that the blood was not actually ankle-deep. It’s even possible that Fulcher himself was less than enthused about this slaughter one thousand years after sacrifice had ceased on the Temple Mount.

But the denouement, the reestablishment of Christian control over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, filled him with joy: “Cleansed from the contagion, of the heathen inhabiting it at one time or another, so long contaminated by their superstition, it was restored to its former rank by those believing and trusting in Him,” he writes, adding that “what the Lord wished to be fulfilled, I believe, by this people so dear…will resound and continue in a memorial of all the languages of the universe to the end of the ages.”

Having gained control of Jerusalem, the penitents set about the business of establishing, well, Crusader States. Eventually these would include territory not only in the Holy Land but also on Cyprus, in the Balkans, and in the Baltics. Complete with feudal and canon law, we might even want to call them the Christian State in the Levant and Elsewhere (CSLE). Let’s just not get on our high horse about it.

  • Joe DeCaro

    So the man who was inspired to write the majority of the New Testament canon isn’t really a Christian and instead inspired the (Pauline) Christian equivalent of “crazied Mohammed idol worshippers” by just a single verse from his letter to the Romans?

    This kind of outrageous moral equivalence picks up where Obama left off.

  • Chaplain Martin

    Comments have started off a bit weird and will get even more so. I have two seminary graduate degrees and some 50 years in the ministry and I have read comments on this blog that I never heard before. Eventually the comments will get personal and further away from the subject as they go. Your blog does fill a need, we all want to see our comments on the internet. Its the next best thing to being in print. Just think of the trees that will be saved, unless we tend to print out our comments.
    My comments here are not on the subject either.

  • Larry

    Well played Professor Silk!

    One must bear in mind the church theory of “Just War” differs wildly from any modern version of the term. Justifications included at the time:
    -When churches command so for any reason
    -To wipe out heretical believers
    -To maintain power of a despot
    -Conquest, because the ultimate goal is peace under one rule.

  • Ben in Oakland

    Great Schism– 1054. The New roman empire lost half of its wealth and territory.

    First Crusade declared– 1095.

    Siege and sack of Constantinople– 1204, part of the fourth crusade. The destruction of the old roman empire.

    You can do the math.

  • Jack

    Hmm…What to say that hasn’t been said already……

    On the one hand, the context for the Crusades was a millennium-long fight for supremacy between Christendom and Islam that typically took on military dimensions. How we view that fight depends on which side, if any, we wanted to win.

    To the extent that western civilization historically has operated within some sort of Christian framework, and to the extent that we’re all products of western civ and support at least its current forms, we probably are better off over the fact that the eventual outcome was that the armies of Islam did not ultimately win the battle for Europe. They won against the Crusades in the Holy Land, but when the dust had settled many centuries later, they did not control Europe.

    On the other hand, while the Crusades cannot be discussed outside of that twilight struggle, we can certainly say that there was little or nothing holy about them. As I said in another post, to sum things up, the Crusades managed to slaughter civilians, including Jews, and get their butts kicked by real armies of Muslims. Thus they were a double defeat for western civ — a moral horror and a military fiasco.

    Comparing them to ISIS — as to the horrors, sure. But as to their ultimate aim and their relationship to the 1000-year on-and-off-again military struggle between Euro-Christendom and Islam, well….that depend, again, on whether you think an ultimate Muslim takeover would’ve been a better or worse idea.

    In other words, when it comes to the Crusades, it’s best to think on two tracks –the Crusades themselves, which were a moral horror in terms of deeds, and the greater struggle between the two religions in the field of battle for land supremacy.

  • Larry

    The problem with the usual excuses for the Crusades are:

    1. There is a 3 century gap between the furthest limit of Muslim expansion in the West and the First Crusade.

    2. The Crusades were not an extension Christian power, but of Catholic power. The Byzantine Empire was the empire which was actually in an existential struggle against the expansion of Muslim forces in the region. The Crusades not only trashed the Byzantines but left them weakened enough to be entirely taken over by Islam.

    3. The Crusaders behavior in the Middle East was generally negative. They conquered territory, forced conversions, engaged in mass slaughter of unbelievers. The only difference between their acts and ISIS is that such behavior is far less acceptable several centuries later than it is now.

    ISIS, like the Crusaders can be seen as forces involved in a struggle for land. They were formed as an Al Queda offshoot in order to horn in on the civil war in Syria. Up until the appearance of ISIS the combatants were largely political and secular in nature. At the outbreak of full fledged civil war, you had 2 different pro-democracy moderate factions (who were largely ignored by the West), breakaway factions of the Syrian military, Hezbollah units supporting the Syrian government, and the Kurds who were fighting for both self-defense and with the idea of forming a future Kurdish state. The Sunni Islamicist militias were latecomers.

    ISIS grew out of the 35 year old cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Syria an ally of Iran presented a major target for Saudi aligned expansion in the region. Saudi-aligned money and equipment started to pour in for Sunni Islamicist militias who would form ISIS.

    The behavior of ISIS is not much different than what was usually seen from various militias in Sub-Sahara African conflicts (most notably in the Congo for the last 20 years). What gets the attention of the world is where it is happening. The world is far more interested in what goes on in Syria and Iraq than Uganda and Congo.

  • Nanabedokw’Môlsem

    It would seem that the actual deeds and tactics of early Christian ‘warriors’ on their way to Jerusalem were roughly similarly to ISIS today, and for similar reasons. It is no excuse that ‘we’ were ‘right’ and ISIS is ‘wrong’ with regard to ‘which’ religion is motivating such conduct. Either brutality in the service of religion is OK, or it is not. And I would say “NOT.”

  • Jack

    I basically agree, but when it comes to comparisons between the Crusades and ISIS, I stick to the two-track view I have about the Crusades.

    On the one hand, in terms of their behavior, there is little difference in the level of atrocities in proportion to the numbers of people in battle. In both cases, it was horrifying.

    But on the other hand, I am not neutral in the long-standing struggle between Christendom and Islam that went on for so many centuries. Despite all the detestable things done in the name of Christ, I believe our world today would’ve been a lot worse had the armies of Islam triumphed over the armies of Christendom. I have my doubts that so much of what’s happened over the past few centuries, from the establishment of America and American democracy to the modern spread of freedom and prosperity, even to the poorest areas of the world, would have taken place had the Muslim forces triumphed. Despite my evangelical bias against so much of Euro-Christendom, its church-state combine, its ecclesiastical monopolizing of Scripture, and all the rest, I still believe that it preserved important parts of the original faith and doctrines of Christ which made ultimate reform and progress possible – and that it contained within it the seeds of much good we see around us today. For example, Aquinas’ natural-law teachings were the indispensable precursors to rule-of-law-over-rule-of-man teachings which led to the rise of constitutionalism many centuries later — even though Aquinas himself was nothing close to being what we’d now call pro-democracy.

  • “Great Schism– 1054. The New roman empire lost half of its wealth and territory.”

    Correction: “The Great Apostasy — 1054. The Latins remove themselves from the Roman Empire.”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A good thoughtful column.
    The media constantly seems obsessed with the sins and faults of Christians to the point much of relevant history about Christian- Moslem relations gets ignored. For example I have seen no mention of the Battle of Tours or the sieges of Vienna. If Christians had not won the battles in those places we would probably either all be Moslem– or Christians constantly living in dhimmitude (second class existence),
    And then there is the never mentioned Holocaust of the Armenian Christians at the start of the 20th Century by the Moslem Turks. Is this going to be the fate of Israeli Jews if places like Iran get their way and keep their pledge to wipe out all the Jews in Israel??? Some say that to say that makes one an Islamophobe. But some fears history proves are rational and unless are faced nurture future similar events.

  • tz

    The only person on a high horse is the guy lecturing about manners while he pretends to develop a plan to address terrorism every time his poll numbers are affected and then slow walks support to ethnic and religious minorities as they are murdered by ISIS. You have demonstrated your usual lack of moral seriousness professor..great job..i think you might contribute more to the fate of humanity if you just forget about the social commentary and get back to getting high again. So cool.

    Also the guy who lectures about religion being used as a divisive force after he attended Rev Wright’s church for 20 yrs.

  • Larry

    ” I have my doubts that so much of what’s happened over the past few centuries, from the establishment of America and American democracy to the modern spread of freedom and prosperity, even to the poorest areas of the world, would have taken place had the Muslim forces triumphed. ”

    Well the Islamic civilization was actually more advanced than Medieval Europe at the time of Tours. The fact that Europe was all under the same religion of Christianity didn’t do very much for creating a peaceful united continent for most of its history.

    Most of the developments leading to the United States and its democracy stemmed from ongoing conflicts between churches and between church and state. The multi-ethnic nature of Europe would have made such conflicts inevitable regardless of the religion involved.

    We know how Muslims ruled Europe based on the history of the Balkans. For the most part, neither mass conversion nor significant colonization was in the cards except in isolated instances (Albania and Bosnia). The greatest check on Islamic expansion was not from Europeans, but the other direction, the Mongols (ie the destruction of the Caliphate).

  • samuel Johnston

    “a man willing to murder his own kid to appease a voice in his head is “righteousness”.
    I agree, it’s a terrifying story. My father read the Bible out loud at the dinner table.
    I wonder how many children besides myself had repeated nightmares that the adults that they depended on, might just offer them up to God as sacrifice? One direct result was that I never forced that book on my child.

  • The fact that Isaac post-sacrifice is a pallid, passive figure suggests that he was traumatized by the experience, so far as the author of Genesis was concerned.

  • Samuel Johnston

    Hi Mark,
    My question is similar to Stephens.
    “a man willing to murder his own kid to appease a voice in his head is “righteousness”.
    Why are these gruesome stories still taught? Why circumcision? Why a bloody body on a cross?
    The Romans- terrified of Hannibal , sacrificed their children on the field of Mars.
    The Aztecs priests ripped the still beating heart from its body. How is it that all this horror is such a success?
    And oh, by the way- men are not mere animals, because they have a divine soul.

  • Re: “On the one hand, the context for the Crusades was a millennium-long fight for supremacy between Christendom and Islam that typically took on military dimensions.”

    … except, the first wave of Crusaders, who were primarily French, rolled across Europe and stomped into the Middle East, attacking Muslims who were no threat to them by virtue of distance. Had they actually been fighting a natural struggle between rival neighbors, it would have made more sense for them to have marched south, instead, and assisted in the reclamation of Spain. In fact, one of the First Crusade’s princes, Raymond of St Gilles, had campaigned there already and acquired a reputation as a smiter of Saracens. So it’s not as though they were ignorant of the presence of Muslims in Spain.

    The cold fact is, the Crusaders went and attacked a place they had no business venturing to in the first place (i.e. Jerusalem). As it turned out, an awful lot of them never made it there, because they weren’t well prepared for the journey.

    It also turns out they actually undermined their supposed fellow Christian states in the Middle East, such as Edessa (which Baldwin of Boulogne seized in 1098 just as the siege of Antioch was heating up). Once they were safely (if only temporarily, as it would turn out) ensconced in the Holy Land in 1099, the First Crusaders proceeded to throw out the existing Christian Orthodox hierarchy in favor of their own. They kept former Byzantine territory for themselves rather than returning it to the (Christian) Byzantine Empire, and some of their princes (e.g. Bohemond of Taranto, later ruler of Antioch) even started fighting the Byzantines.

    There’s just no way anyone can say the Crusaders were defending or championing Christendom, especially given how poorly they treated eastern Christians. Also, their wars did nothing whatsoever to make western Europe any safer than it had been before they departed. The Muslims and Jews they massacred in Jerusalem, for example, had never been a threat to them, and never would have become one had the Crusade never taken place.