150 Appraising The Crusades






          Crusades and crusaders have lately elicited little more than antipathy and abuse.  After mentioning the need for a crusade in response to 9/11, President Bush quickly cleansed his language of all such references.  In Christian circles, where we used to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” any hint of Christian militancy has been suppressed.  Billy Graham once held crusades around the world but now uses less offensive terms.  For a century, Christian colleges–such as Point Loma Nazarene University, where I teach–happily embraced the crusader as a suitable mascot for athletic teams.  After all, Crusaders were brave men who risked their lives as cross-bearing pilgrims, determined to rescue the holy city of Jerusalem.  But PLNU recently discarded the Crusader logo and now portrays its representatives as Sea Lions.  (Ironically, the most notable historical reference to this creature was “operation Sealion”–Hitler’s proposed invasion of Britain in WWII). 

          Given the Crusaders’ current disfavor, it’s important to learn a bit about their history!  As a rule of thumb, those who most detest the Crusades know the least about them!  Fortunately, there’s  been a revival of serious historical work in this area, for which Thomas F. Madden’s A Concise History of the Crusades (New York:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., c. 1999) provides a convenient entryway.  A chronological narrative, Madden’s account begins with “the call,” first evident in Pope Gregory VII’s proposal to send a Christian army against the Turks in 1074, just 20 years after the momentous schism between eastern and western branches of Christendom.  To Gregory this would be “an errand of mercy and an act of charity” to restore the unity of the Church (p. 7). 

          Gregory’s aspiration found a clear voice in his successor, Pope Urban II, who responded, in 1095, to the Byzantine emperor’s request for assistance with a call for the First Crusade.  Thousands of folks rallied, taking up the Cross as pilgrims, “cross bearers” determined to do penance by going to Jerusalem and restoring her sacred sites to Christian control.  Typical of feudal society, crusaders moved without much cohesion or plan.  Thus, needing supplies, they pillaged the countryside as they moved and especially alienated the Byzantines they supposedly came to rescue.  Multiplied thousands of them–especially the followers of Peter the Hermit–were slaughtered by Muslims in Turkey.  But in time a remnant of the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099 and established a Christian kingdom that lasted for nearly a century. 

          What they lacked, however, were three essentials for permanent success:  “a strong ruler, ready troops, and abundant supplies” (p. 39).  Lacking organization, continual dissent plagued the feudal states established along the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea.  Though many Europeans fought as Crusaders, few of them stayed–indeed virtually all the great nobles returned home as quickly as possible.  Often there were only a few hundred knights, plus a few thousand foot soldiers, in the entire region, holding out against thousands of Moslem warriors.  Losses, by 1140, led to the preaching of the Second Crusade, primarily by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, though little resulted from the campaign that failed (in its only significant action) to take Damascus in 1148. 

          Resurgent Islam in the 1180s prompted the Third Crusade, which enlisted the largest number of warriors.  In 1187 Saladin defeated a Christian army near Nazareth at the Horns of Hattin, one of the most decisive battles ever fought.  (The real Saladin, parenthetically, bears little resemblance to his benign popular image–he was, in fact, a rather ruthless, dictatorial man.)  The Christians were decimated, and all the gains of the previous century seemed imperiled.  So Richard the Lion Heart and other European kings orchestrated “the largest military enterprise of the Middle Ages” (p. 81).  Some victories were won, but basically the Crusaders negotiated with Saladin and retired from the fray.

          Five more crusades, during the 13th century, targeted the Holy Lands.  One ended up sacking Constantinople after a complicated struggle between Latin and Orthodox forces.  Others bogged down in Egypt, and one imploded with the death of Louis IX in Tunis.  In 1291, the final fortress in the Holy Land fell, and the Crusaders withdrew.  However, conflict between Christians and Muslims continued.  Constantinople fell in 1453 and Vienna was besieged in 1529.  Crusades of various sorts still attracted followers.  But the Reformation divided the Church, and in the 16th century political divisions and loyalties became paramount.  “In that new world,” Madden says, “the crusade had no place” (p. 213). 

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          Madden frequently cites the work of Jonathan Riley-Smith, a professor of history at the University of Cambridge, who is generally considered the premier authority on the crusades.  Of his many monographs, the volume to first consult is What Were the Crusades? (3d ed., San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, c. 2002).  He notes that computer-aided research has especially revised historians’ understandings of the crusades.  “In particular,” he says, “I have become much more aware of the penitential element in crusading and the way it coloured the whole movement.  I now believe that it was its most important defining feature” (p. xii).  Piety–doing penance so as to receive indulgences–not avarice or ambition, prompted the Crusades.  Urban II, calling for the First Crusade, “was, in effect, creating a new type of pilgrimage, like the perigrinatio religiosa in that it was volunteered out of devotion, but also like the penitential one oin that its performance constituted a formal penance and was set by him in the context of the confessional” (p. 55). 

          Waging war for pious reasons was permitted, according to Christian teaching, so long as it was a “just war.”  Rooted in the thought of St Augustine, sanctified by the approval of saintly preachers such as St Bernard of Clairvaux, Crusaders considered themselves fighting to defend innocent Christians who had been violently overwhelmed by Moslems.  Urban II, calling for the First Crusade, urged his hearers to “liberate” fellow Christians suffering the tyranny of Seljuk Turkish rule, to liberate the holy shrines in Jerusalem, to love their brothers enough to lay down their lives for them.  It was a just and righteous reason to take up arms.

          Valid crusades were duly declared by legitimate authorities–another mark of a just war.  For two centuries a series of popes–many of them, beginning with Gregory VII, quite godly–urged crusaders to sally forth, doing the Lord’s work.  And Christian kings–such as the revered Louis IX–invested time and talent seeking to do it.  Crusaders fought with the assurance that the highest authorities, both spiritual and secular, supported their efforts.  Most importantly, crusading was a means of grace, placing “the act of fighting on the same meritorious plane as prayer, works of mercy and fasting” (p. 56).  This is evident in that, despite the Crusaders’ penchant for indiscriminate and ruthless violence, the “first crusaders began each new stage of the march barefooted and fasted before every major engagement.  In June 1099 they processed solemnly around the city of Jerusalem, which was still in Muslim hands,” following robed priests and singing songs (p. 58).  Crusaders went forth only because they were buoyed up by words, such as St Bernard’s:

 Go forward then in security, knights, and drive off without fear the enemies of the Cross of Christ, certain that neither death nor life can separate you from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ. . . .  How glorious are those who return victorious from the battle!  How happy are those who die as martyrs in the battle!  Rejoice, courageous athlete, if you survive and are victor in the Lord; but rejoice and glory the more if you die and are joined to the Lord.  For your life is fruitful and your victory glorious.  But death . . . is more fruitful and more glorious.  For if those who die in the Lord are blessed, how much more are those who die for the Lord! (p. 65) 

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          With the most recent, highly-respected historical scholarly works in one hand, it is fascinating to pick up two books written two notorious generalists–Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton–nearly a century ago.  The two friends–known as “Chesterbelloc” by some–shared similar interests but contrasting personalities.  This appears in the books the two wrote dealing with the crusades. 

          A bellicose Belloc’s The Crusades was first published in 1937 and was reprinted by Tan Books and Publishers in Rockford, IL in 1992.  He wrote with the conviction that the Seljuk Turks’ victory over Byzantine Christians in 1071 at Manzikert, the incident that led to the First Crusade, would have quickly led to the conquest of Constantinople and perhaps of all Europe, had not the Crusaders rebuffed them.  “The Mongols overran, devastated, and destroyed all that land of hither Asia which had been the solid foundation of the Byzantine power; the reservoir of Byzantine landed wealth, the nursery of our religion.  The victorious Turks pillaged and killed wholesale . . . .  They so cut at the roots of all civilization that it withered before them.  Within much less than a lifetime the whole vast district of interior Asia Minor was ruined” (pp. 16-17).   At that moment, both Pope Gregory VII and Hilaire Belloc recognized:  “The issue was the life or death of Christendom” (p. 17).  And that issue still stands unresolved, for the crusades unfortunately failed to crush Islam, which remains intact and still threatens Christianity. 

          Belloc’s account mixes narrative and analysis.  “Human affairs are decided through conflict of ideas, which often resolve themselves by conflict under arms” (p. 1).  At times he provides gripping descriptions of the men and armies, terrain and cities, weapons and strategies, battles and bloodshed, which characterized the crusades.  Of the armies that assembled in the First Crusade, he writes (anticipating the conclusions of today’s historians):  “The host was essentially a host of pilgrims; the armed as well as the unarmed thought of themselves as men engaged on a pilgrimage; a journey undertaken with a religious object for its goal and under a vow” (p. 36).  

Crusade leaders such as Bohemond, Baldwin, and Tancred come to life in Belloc’s story, for they’re portrayed with a novelist’s attention to detail–physique, hair color, temperament, character.   He even provides numerical estimates (too often unmentioned by crusade historians) of the forces involved:  perhaps 300,000 people crossed over the Bosphorus into Asia, of whom some 40,000 made it to Jerusalem.  Of the 40,000, only 1,500 were knights–the virtually irresistible mounted warriors who consistently defeated far greater numbers of Islamic warriors.   Their religious fervor was clearly illustrated in the transformation that took place among the crusaders when the lance head that pierced Christ’s side was unearthed in Antioch and the solemn processions around Jerusalem shortly before the city was attacked.  “They went in solemn train, chanting the holy chants, from the Mount of Olives, dominating the town, round by the north and west to Zion hill; and all the walls were crowded with the Negroes and the Saracens, jeering at them and their canting–planting crosses in full sight of the Christians, which they spat upon and otherwise defiled” (pp. 113-114).  The subsequent savagery of the Crusaders’ behavior in Jerusalem was fueled by the Muslims’ sacrilege, and “a violent resistance ended in general massacre” (p. 115).  Though the valiant Tancred tried to restrain them, the Christians slaughtered the holy city’s defenders, sadly blemishing their endeavor. 

Apart from the descriptive passages–devoted singularly to the first three crusades–Belloc’s strength lies in his analysis.  He particularly emphasized how the failure to take Allepo (mid-way between Antioch and Edessa in northern Syria) in 1097 and Damascus in 1098 ultimately doomed the Christian cause.  By failing to occupy these strategic sites, Muslims controlled the important north-south road that skirts the desert east of the region’s mountains.  Had the Crusaders seized control of Allepo and Damascus and “permanently occupied the whole maritime belt of Syria between the Mediterranean and the Desert, they would have cut Islam in two.  That is the central strategic truth of the Crusades–but they never occupied the whole” (p. 181). 

Further hindering the Crusades was the incessant internal strife and disorganization that forever limited the Christians’ efforts.  Though they allegedly came to “help” Byzantium recover her lost lands, the Crusaders all too often battled the Greeks whose objectives differed from theirs.  Crusaders constantly squabbled among themselves, even resorting to violence to resolve disputes.  Decisions were endlessly debated and delayed, simply because of the nature of Western Europe’s feudal society.  The first generation of Christians, a small minority surrounded by Greek Christians as well as Muslims, soon intermarried, and their descendents often opposed the Europeans who came to help them in later crusades. 

Thus weakened, the Crusader states were vulnerable to Saladin, the “fanatically anti-Christian” Muslim who won the pivotal battle of Hattin in 1187.  Subsequently, despite various crusades, the Muslims would control the region.  However, Belloc insists, the first century of crusading arrested the Turkish advance and saved European civilization.

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Belloc’s friend, G. K. Chesterton, dealt with the Crusades in a travel book he wrote shortly after World War I, titled The New Jerusalem (Fort Collins, CO:  Roman Catholic Books, reprint of 1921 publication).  Typical of Chesterton, this book abounds with imaginative insights, unexpected correlations between modern events and ancient history, and an enthusiastic defense of Christianity accompanied by a warm-hearted critique of her foes.  Beginning his journey, for example, he noticed the cross-roads in his own village.  This reminded him that “The sight of the cross-roads is in a true sense the sign of the cross.  For it is the sign of a truly Christian thing; that sharp combination of liberty and limitation which we call choice.  As I looked for the last time at the pale roads under the load of cloud, I knew that our civilization had indeed come to the cross-roads” (p. 16). 

That civilization, of course, for centuries has battled Islam, which denies free choice!  And as Chesterton traveled to Middle East he witnessed many manifestations of these two worldviews.  Muslims had flowed out of the desert, everywhere evident to travelers such as Chesterton, and “it is the nature of all this outer nomadic anarchy that it is capable sooner or later of tearing anything and everything in pieces; it has no instinct of preservation or of the permanent needs of men.  Where it has passed the ruins remain ruins and are not renewed; where it has been resisted and rolled back, the links of our long history are never lost” (p. 29).  They were–and are–barbarians, and “there is above all this supreme stamp of the barbarian; the sacrifice of the permanent to the temporary” (p. 67). 

These barbarians invaded Christian lands.  Whatever heroic virtues one may find in the Islamic invaders, “certainly it was Islam that was the invasion and Christendom that was the thing invaded.  An Arabian gentleman found riding on the road to Paris or hammering on the gates of Vienna can hardly complain that we have sought him out in his simple tent in the desert” (p. 34).  As invaders, the Muslims occupied territories long shaped by the Roman Empire.  Crusaders, following the challenge by the Pope in Rome, simply endeavored to restore that empire.  They were “not riding into Asia” but determined to restore lands in Asia to European control.  “In one sentence, it meant that Rome had to recover what Byzantium could not keep” (p. 208). 

As a tourist in Jerusalem, Chesterton noticed small things that reveal much larger realities.  Take for instance the fact that Muslim women wore black dresses whereas Christian women wore white.  “A stranger entirely ignorant of that world would feel something like a chill to the blood when he first saw the black figures of the veiled Moslem women, sinister figures without faces.  It is as if in that world every woman were a widow” (p. 101).  The Christian woman in Bethlehem, however “is made to look magnificent in public.  She not only shows all the beauty of her face; and she is often very beautiful,” but she wears a jeweled crown that “can only conceivably stand, for what we call the Western view of women, but should rather call the Christian view of women” (p. 108).    The differences could not be more black and white! 

Important differences are equally evident when one compares the Medieval Crusaders with their Muslim foes.  Unfortunately, Chesterton says, the anti-Christian bias of the Enlightenment led to a hostile misrepresentation of the Crusades in 18th and 19th century novels and histories.  Such prejudice underlies the erroneous tendency to compare Crusader “intolerance” with the “toleration shown by the Moslems” (p. 261).   “In those romances the Arab is always credited with oriental dignity and courtesy and never with oriental crookedness and cruelty.  The same injustice is introduced into history, which by means of selection and omission can be made as fictitious as any fiction.  Twenty historians mention the way in which the maddened Christian mob murdered the Moslems after the capture of Jerusalem, for one who mentions that the Moslem commander [Saladin] commanded in cold blood the murder of some two hundred of his most famous and valiant enemies after the victory of Hattin” (p. 260).  This bias is evident, Chesterton notes, when writers such as Voltaire vent their hostility to the Cross by condemning–or ridiculing–those who marched under its banners as Crusaders.  All such prejudice, however, must be understood as “a prejudice not so much against Crusaders as against Christians” (p. 264). 

To confront such prejudices, Chesterton would have us recover the Medieval mind, to get back on the “right road” that led to the Crusades!  Indeed, he believed Europe (represented by English troops occupying Palestine when Chesterton visited) should re-establish Christendom in the Middle East.  Intrinsically barbarian, locked into an oversimplified theology, Islam simply cannot sustain a civilization.  So “It is now more certain than it ever was before that Europe must rescue some lordship, or overlordship of these old Roman provinces” (p. 266).