ARCHIVE: The Crusades - Seeking the Truth
Nicholas Schofield FAITH Magazine May-June 2006
The crusades capture the imagination – but over the years they have done so in many different ways. Here are three modern examples:
When I was a boy, I spent many a happy hour with my toy soldiers. I was particularly keen on playing ‘knights and castles,’ and remember having a collection of crusader figures, with red crosses on their breasts. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was following a long tradition of seeing the crusades as a romantic, exotic era of gallant knights – an age celebrated by Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe, and given the Hollywood treatment in 1951.
In 1996, a rather different commemoration of the crusades took place when a group of Christians made a ‘Reconciliation Walk’ as they traced the route taken by the first crusaders. They carried with them a message for Muslims:
nine hundred years ago, our forefathers carried the name of Jesus Christ in battle across the Middle East. Fuelled by fear, greed and hatred, they betrayed the name of Christ by conducting themselves in a manner contrary to His wishes and character. On the anniversary of the first Crusade,…we deeply regret the atrocities committed in the name of Christ by our predecessors.
This is a very different image of the crusades to that suggested by my model soldiers – a series of wars that were anything but heroic and swashbuckling; a shameful travesty of Christian values, ‘fuelled by fear, greed and hatred,’ and marred by bloodthirsty massacres. This view was promoted by Ridley Scott’s recent film, The Kingdom of Heaven. Despite the impressive cast and beautiful photography, the film portrays the crusaders as the aggressors, driven by fanaticism and preaching the rather harsh message: ‘killing an infidel is not murder. It is the path to heaven.’
It is no accident that such a film was released in 2005, showing Western forces battling with Islamic armies in the Middle East. Since the beginning of this century, the crusades have certainly been a fashionable area of discussion. Osama bin Laden, in his taped speeches, has warned the Islamic faithful that the West is intent on a new crusade, seizing Muslim lands and forcing our corrupt way of life on the pious adherents of the Prophet. In 1998, he dubbed his network of terrorist groups the ‘International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders’ – note he refers not to ‘Christians’ but ‘Crusaders.’ But bin Laden is not the only one to use crusading rhetoric. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President Bush shared his unscripted views with reporters and called the coming waron terror a ‘crusade.’ This caused uproar. The President quickly reviewed his vocabulary and clarified that there was no holy war of Christians against Islam, but rather a war against al-Qaeda and its allies, fought to defend the innocent from terror.
Knights in shining armour; greedy, bloodthirsty fanatics; precursors of the current War on Terror – these are three very different ways of looking at the crusades, but which one is closest to the truth? In this essay, I hope to destroy a few myths and place the crusades in context. Above all, I will be considering what the crusades were, why they happened and what legacy they have left the world.
What were the crusades?
Let’s begin at the beginning - what were the crusades? Today, the word ‘crusade’ is used for any campaign promoting a good cause. If you put ‘crusade’ into the google search engine, you get a whole host of references ranging from the Anti-Crime Crusade to Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners Crusade. In the original medieval sense, a crusade was a war, seen as following the will of Almighty God and authorised by the Pope whoidentified the war’s object and granted a number of privileges, such as indulgences, to participants.
Let’s see this definition in action. The First Crusade was authorised by Blessed Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095. The original text of his exhortation has not survived, but witnesses and commentators depict him calling the crowd to answer the command of God and recover the Holy City of Jerusalem from the infidels. The enthusiastic crowds chanted Deus lo vult! – ‘God wills it!’
These first crusaders took on the symbol of the cross – indeed the word ‘crusade’ (which only dates from the eighteenth century) comes from crucesignati. The cross was, of course, an emotive symbol – on the one hand, the central truth of the Faith and a reminder of the Christ-like sacrifice that the crusaders were called to make; on the other, a symbol that underlined the differences between Christianity and Islam. Muslims deny the Divinity of Christ and dispute the fact of His crucifixion, arguing that Allah would never have allowed his prophet to undergo such a cruel and humiliating death. Muslims believe that Jesus was miraculously taken up to heaven and that someone took His place on the cross (perhaps even Judas Iscariot). By denying the truth of the crucifixion Islam thus denies theResurrection. So, as you can see, the symbol of the cross had powerful resonances for both Christians and Muslims.
It’s worth pointing out that we have to be very careful when we talk about the crusades as an organised movement. The thousands of Christians who went off to the East in the aftermath of the Council of Clermont had no idea that they were ‘crusaders’ or that they were participating in the ‘First’ Crusade. They thought that they were involved in a unique expedition, necessitated by recent events in the Holy Land. However, succeeding centuries were littered by similar wars, and historians have tried to impose order on events by numbering them. Thus the campaign of 1146, inspired by the preaching of St Bernard and called by his disciple, Pope Eugenius III, became the ‘Second’ Crusade, followed by a ‘Third Crusade’ in 1188 (made famous by the involvement of Richard ‘the Lionheart’). Theexpedition of 1270, led by St Louis, is the last one to be unanimously numbered – the ‘Eighth Crusade.’ But in addition to these main campaigns, there were many smaller operations that claimed crusading privileges – the so-called Children’s Crusade of 1212 or the Shepherd’s Crusades of 1251 and 1320. And, as we will see later, the Crusades continued long after the Eighth Crusade – even into the eighteenth century.
Crusades were not necessarily fought in the Holy Land or against Muslims. The enemies of Catholic Europe could be found within. During the thirteenth century, for example, a crusade was fought against the Albigensians (also known as the Cathars), who were dualist, anti-clerical heretics based in southern France. Around the same time, the Teutonic Knights fought a crusade against the pagan peoples of the Baltic coast. Even the Spanish Armada of 1588 could be considered, in part, as a Catholic crusade against Protestant England, organised by Philip II of Spain and supported by the Pope.
What caused the Crusades?
The Kingdom of Heaven renewed one of the great myths of the Crusades – that it was an unprovoked act of Christian aggression against the peace-loving, enlightened Islamic world - an arrogant example of proto-imperialism.
To the contrary, the crusades were actually a response to centuries of Islamic expansionism. The expeditions to the East were designed to protect the West. It’s very easy to forget that the Middle East and North Africa were once strongholds of Christianity: Palestine, the site of the Incarnation; Egypt, the birthplace of monasticism; Asia Minor, where St. Paul planted the seeds of the first Christian communities; North Africa, which produced the likes of St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. In fact, at the time of the Prophet Mohammed, what we now consider to be the ‘East’ was actually more strongly Christian than many parts of Europe. St Augustine made his mission to Kent during the Prophet’s lifetime, but much of England was still pagan, as was most of Northern Europe. The heart ofChristianity was in the East.
The speed of Muslim expansion was remarkable and, unlike the spread of Christianity, it was achieved entirely by the sword. The Prophet died in 632; exactly a century later the Arabs had reached Poitiers in France, where they were decisively defeated by Charles Martel. In the meantime they had captured Jerusalem (637) and defeated the Persians and with them their ancient Empire (642). The same year they were in control of Egypt and busy building a navy that would grow to challenge the Byzantine fleet. In the Spring of 711 Tariq Ibn Ziyad landed on the giant rock that juts out into the Mediterranean at the tip of Spain and called it ‘Jabal Tariq’ (Tariq’s Mountain). This was somehow later corrupted to ‘Gibraltar,’ now a British dependency. Within a few years most of Spain was in Islamichands.
Islam even reached Italy: between 827 and 1091 Sicily was under Arab control, and English pilgrims to Rome during the period often complained about Saracen attacks. In 846 a Muslim force actually approached Rome itself and sacked St Peter’s Basilica, which was then just outside the city walls. Consequently the Pope, St Leo IV, decided to build defensive walls on the right bank of the Tiber protecting St Peter’s – the so-called ‘Leonine city.’ In 849 he organised a fleet that defeated the Muslims in a sea-battle near Ostia.
The facts speak for themselves – the speed of Islamic expansion, which ensured that the new religion stretched from the Atlantic coast to Central Asia within a century of the founder’s death, is one of the wonders of history. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, ‘when people talk as if the Crusades were nothing more than an aggressive raid against Islam, they seem to forget in the strangest way that Islam itself was only an aggressive raid against the old and ordered civilization in these parts. I do not say it in mere hostility to the religion of Mahomet; I am fully conscious of many values and virtues in it; but certainly it was Islam that was the invasion and Christendom that was the thing invaded.’ Muslim jurists formed the concept of jihad, or holy struggle, which included the aim ofconquering the rest of the non-Muslim world.
Despite this Islamic aggression, there was actually a steady flow of pilgrims to Jerusalem. Pilgrimages especially blossomed from the tenth century. Pilgrims included Duke Robert of Normandy (1035) and Swein Godwinson, the brother of the future King Harold (1051). In 1065 as many as 7,000 German pilgrims made their way to the Holy City, led by the Archbishop of Metz and the bishops of Utrecht, Ratisbon, and Bamberg.
Pilgrims were normally tolerated by the Arabs – they were, after all, a valuable source of income. However, things changed in the second half of the eleventh century when the Arabs were threatened by the warlike peoples of Central Asia, particularly the Seljuk Turks. In 1071 they captured Jerusalem. The formerly glorious Byzantine Empire had shrunk in size and was limited to little more than Greece. The Emperor, Alexius I, called on the West for help by sending his ambassadors to the Church Council of Piacenza in March 1095. Urban II responded with a call to arms at Clermont the following year. In the eyes of Fulcher of Chartres, Pope Urban emphasised that Islamic aggression was the reason for the First Crusade:
Your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean…They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire.
Christendom, then, was bordered by Islam to the east and the south, and the First Crusade was a new stage in a conflict that had already been fought intermittently for many centuries. As Crusades historian Thomas Madden puts it, the First Crusade was to be ‘an errand of mercy, liberating the Christians of the East from their Muslim conquerors. In other words, the Crusades were from the beginning a defensive war. The entire history of the eastern Crusades is one of response to Muslim aggression.’
There were a number of other reasons why 1096 was a peak time for a crusade. It is easy to see how an international expedition called by the Pope could add much needed prestige to the Papacy, at a time when it was consolidating its authority. Likewise, a military expedition in support of the Byzantine Emperor might do something to heal the schism between the Eastern and Western Church (a division that only dated from1054) – although, paradoxically, the crusades ended up making the situation worse, especially after the Sack of Constantinople in 1204.
Pope Urban also saw the crusades as a solution to some of the problems facing the medieval West. According to the anonymous Gesta Francorum, he declared at Clermont:
Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward. Let those who have been wearing themselves out in both body and soul now work for a double honour.
The eleventh century had seen efforts to restore peace to the West. The Church sought to protect its property and the marginalised from the horrors of war and even banned fighting on holy days on pain of excommunication. The crusades would unite these forces in society in a good cause.
Of course, many people today have a problem with reconciling the notion of a ‘holy war’ with the Gospels. The theory of a ‘just war,’ as developed by St Augustine, was a result of the spread of Christianity and its recognition, around 380, as the official religion of the Roman Empire. At the same time, the ideal of the warrior-saint, as exemplified by a St George or a St Sebastian (and even, in a different sense, the Archangel Michael), became firmly established. By the sixth century, Gregory of Tours presented the wars of the Frankish King Clovis against the Arian heretics as part of the divine plan, and a succession of Popes praised those who fell in battle against the Muslim invaders of Spain. The Church therefore recognised warfare and rituals such as the blessing of banners, armourand weapons offered means of sanctification for medieval knights. It was, perhaps, a natural step to institute a succession of ‘holy’ campaigns to fight for Christ in the land of His birth. Medieval documents referred to the crusaders as the Exercitus Dei (army of God) and the Gens sancta (holy people).
Old-fashioned historians, influenced by the Marxist idea that economic factors control history, argued that the crusaders’ main motive was greed – greed for money and booty. This was, they argued, a result of the laws of primogeniture – Europe was flooded by younger sons of the nobility who were trained to be men-at-arms but had no land to inherit. The crusades were designed to keep them off the streets by channelling their aggression towards the east. In actual fact, many of the crusaders were not younger sons but ‘first sons;’ some had to sell or mortgage their lands in order to go on the expedition. Going on the crusades was more easily said than done.
One can’t deny that greed and bloodlust was also a factor - the taking of booty was, after all, an essential ingredient of medieval warfare and considered to be the rightful property of the victor. Piety could easily be mixed with desire to gain wealth and power. Indeed, the commercial interests of Venice would lead to the devastating sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. The Pope excommunicated all who had participated in this.
Sadly, the crusades were often marred by unnecessary bloodshed. Pope Urban soon lost control of the First Crusade. Mobs that were supposedly marching towards the East turned towards the Jewish communities in the Rhineland, who were given the option of converting to Christianity or being slaughtered. Thousands lost their lives. These atrocities shocked Christendom at the time - at Trier, for example, most of the Jewish community was protected in the archbishop’s palace. When similar anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out at the call of the Second Crusade, they were stamped out by no less a figure than St Bernard.
But we have to appreciate that the crusaders were greedy not only for loot but, even more so, for salvation. In The Kingdom of Heaven, the character played by Orlando Bloom goes to the Holy Land in search of redemption from his sins, which range from murdering a priest to guilt over his wife’s suicide. This hits on a very important truth: difficult though it might be for our modern minds to understand, the Crusades were almost seen as sacramental – an action that opened the doors of Divine grace.
Crusaders were offered a plenary indulgence, the remission of all temporal punishment due to sin. According to Fulcher of Chartres, Pope Urban promised the first crusaders that ‘all who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.’ From the 1180’s it was also possible to gain a partial indulgence for sending money or arms to the crusade. In 1198 Pope Innocent III instituted a plenary indulgence for sending a substitute on crusade, so that those who were unable to fight (perhaps because of age or sickness) could participate.
The popularity of the Crusades also bears witness to the centrality of Jerusalem in medieval mentality. As historian Sophia Menache puts it, ‘an ordinary Christian living in the eleventh century might not have known the name of his nearest city, and it is doubtful whether he knew the name of his king’s residence; but he knew of the existence of Jerusalem, of which he had heard during Mass, its image glowing in the stained-glass windows of the Church. Jerusalem had become a fairly tangible place for him, the place where Jesus the Saviour was crucified, where God will shape the final battle which heralds doomsday.’ Indeed, if you look at medieval maps of the world – such as the thirteenth century mappa mundi at Hereford Cathedral – you’ll see Jerusalem at its centre (rather than GreatBritain, as in most modern maps). Medieval Christians felt that having the holiest sites of Christianity in the hands of infidels was an affront to the faith and to Christ Himself, and consequently, that they had a religious duty to recover them.
So, money and booty were not the chief reasons that they went on Crusade in the first place; they went to atone for their sins and to win salvation by doing good works in a faraway land. The crusades were orientated towards the eternal salvation of the participants.
The Military Orders
The First Crusade was arguably the most successful of these ‘armed pilgrimages,’ capturing Jerusalem in 1099 and establishing the series of Latin Kingdoms, known by the French term ‘Outremer’ (meaning ‘overseas’). These included the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and, most importantly, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which existed between 1099 and 1291. The first Christian King of Jerusalem was one of the leaders of the First Crusade, Godfrey of Bouillon – though, out of respect for Christ, who had been crowned with thorns in that holy city, he refused the title of King and preferred to be known as the Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri (‘Defender of the Holy Sepulchre’). It’s important to realise, though, that these territories were military outposts rather thanWestern colonies, like those of a much later period. Most crusaders who survived the campaign returned home. Because of the need for an armed presence in Outremer, the Military Orders were founded.
These were part religious order, part elite fighting force. The title of one of the best English books on the subject refers to them as ‘monks of war,’ bound by the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Remarkably, two of the main Military Orders are still alive and active in the Church today. I remember, when I was a seminarian in Rome, feeling rather excited when I discovered that one of my classmates was a Teutonic Knight! This Order had been founded in 1190 to care for the German casualties of the Siege of Acre. The Order survived the ravages of time, thanks to the protection of the House of Habsburg, and since 1929 has been a purely religious order of priests. The other survivor is, of course, the Order of Malta – originally founded in 1113 as the Order of St John of Jerusalem (orthe Hospitallers). Curiously, in international law, the Knights are a sovereign entity, a sort of ‘country without territory,’ with their own constitution, passports, stamps, and diplomatic relations with 93 countries. The current Prince and Grand Master, Fra’ Andrew Bertie, was born in London and taught for 23 years at Worth Abbey.
Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) of the Military Orders were the Templars, created in 1118 to defend Christian pilgrims, with headquarters near the Temple of Solomon (hence the name). They became a powerful factor in the Near East, levying taxes and establishing a wide-ranging banking system (indeed, they became bankers for the English and French crowns).
The year 1291 marked a landmark in crusading history – this was when the city of Acre was lost to the Muslims and the crusader states collapsed. In the aftermath of disaster, a lot of finger pointing was directed at the Military Orders – they had grown wealthy and people blamed the rivalry between the Templars and Hospitallers for the weakening of Outremer. Philip IV of France took the opportunity of this ill feeling to suppress the Knights Templar, who had established a powerful banking network across Europe. In 1307 all the Templars in his Kingdom were arrested; under torture, many confessed to outrageous crimes, including black magic, heresy and sodomy. In 1312 Pope Clement V suppressed the Order. The last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burnt at the stake in Paris in 1314. Eversince, the Knights Templar have been surrounded by many legends, especially concerning the Holy Shroud, the Holy Grail and the handing down of secret knowledge.Both the freemasons and Nazis have seen the Knights as their precursors, while Dan Brown is responsible for the latest ‘Templar craze.’
Meanwhile, the other Military Orders found new roles – the Hospitallers gained control of Rhodes in 1310, which placed them in a key strategic position against the Turks. The Order lost the island in 1523 but gained another key Mediterranean outpost, Malta, in 1530. The Teutonic Knights concentrated on the ‘crusades’ against the pagan Lithuanians and schismatic Russians.
The crusades did not end with the fall of the crusader states. The Fall of Acre led to several centuries of Turkish expansion – these were the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, crowned by the destruction of Byzantium and the capture of Constantinople in 1453. Christendom lacked unity during this period – not least because of the weakness of the Papacy, exiled to Avignon and divided between various claimants – but a number of defensive expeditions in the crusading tradition continued.
In 1456, for example, Belgrade was defended from the Ottomans, thanks partly to the preaching of St John of Capistrano. Sixty years later, one of Martin Luther’s criticisms of the Church involved crusading – Turkish attacks on the West were punishment from God, he said, and the best line of defence was prayer not warfare. Europe at the time of Luther’s revolution was abuzz with crusading programmes. Even Henry VIII got involved. In 1511 he sent 1,500 English archers to Cadiz to help King Ferdinand’s proposed crusade to Tunis; a few years later, he promised to support Pope Leo X’s plan to mount a crusade. Indeed, these plans distracted the Pope from events in Germany and actually helped the spread of the Reformation!
Henceforth, crusades became the concern of Catholic Europe and the following century saw the formation of various ‘Holy Leagues.’ The most successful of these, consisting of an alliance between the Pope, Spain and Venice, famously defeated the Turkish fleet at Lepanto on 7th October 1571. We still celebrate this victory every year on 7th October, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. In 1683 the Turks unsuccessfully tried to capture Vienna (as they had done in 1529). This Christian victory was once again attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, and the Pope approved the feast of the Holy Name of Mary. Another Holy League, involving Poland, Germany and Venice, was formed in the aftermath of this siege, to further the protection of Christendom.
In his recent bestseller, White Gold, Giles Milton tells the story of the million or so Europeans whom Islamic slave traders captured during the period. This really brought the threat to home. Between 1609 and 1616 466 English trading ships were captured. In July 1625 the West Country was raided by Islamic pirates – about a thousand Englishmen were taken and the Islamic standard was even raised on the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel! These Barbary corsairs even reached Iceland and transported hundreds of the fair-skinned inhabitants back to North Africa for a life of slavery.
The crusading movement could be said to have continued until 13th June 1798, when Napoleon captured Malta. The island had been the home of the Knights Hospitaller since 1530, shortly after their ejection from Rhodes by the Turks. The Knights survived a Turkish siege in 1565 and Malta became the last crusading military outpost. Of course, Great Britain gained control of the island after the Napoleonic period, but, as we’ve seen, the Order of Malta continues to this day.
What did the crusades achieve? One French historian, Jacques le Goff, famously said that ‘arguably, the only fruit of the Crusades kept by the Christians was the apricot.’ Certainly, the crusades introduced to the West various Eastern foods and goods, but le Goff’s view is rather pessimistic (and, anyway, , the apricot had already been brought by the Arabs to Spain by the time of the crusades.)
But one has to admit that in terms of politics and military strategy, the crusades were a failure. Hilaire Belloc commented that
Had the Crusaders’ remaining force at the end of the First Crusading march been a little more numerous, had they taken Damascus and a string of towns on the fringe of the desert, the whole history of the world would have been changed. The world of Islam would have been cut in two, with the East unable to approach the West; probably we Europeans would have recovered North Africa and Egypt - we should certainly have saved Constantinople – and Mohammedism would only have survived as an Oriental Religion thrust beyond the ancient boundaries of the Roman Empire. As it was Mohammedism not only survived but grew stronger…gradually losing its hold on Western Europe while it was increasing its hold over Southeastern Europe.
Initiated at the request of the Byzantine emperors and formulated by the Papacy, which desired protection of the Holy Places and a unified Church, the Crusades were never controlled by the Church. On numerous occasions, the lofty ideals were corrupted by personal ambition. The negative results of the Crusades are clear. There were bloody massacres and much shameful destruction. The crusades involved anti-Jewish persecution and actually worsened the schism between Eastern and Western Christians. Even at the time, the Church was often at odds with crusaders – as we have seen, the Popes condemned the Rhineland massacres of the First Crusade and excommunicated all those who had sacked Constantinople. In the lead up to the Third Millennium, John Paul II asked that ‘the Church should becomemore fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children,’ reminding the faithful that, however painful it may be, ‘acknowledging the weaknesses of the past is an act of honesty and courage which helps us to strengthen our faith, which alerts us to face today's temptations and challenges and prepares us to meet them.’
However, to point to the Crusades as a symbol of a fanatical, power-hungry, bloodthirsty Church is to misinterpret history. The Crusades were a far more complicated series of events than the anti-Catholic statements of some historians would suggest. The Crusades should be understood within the context of the times, rather than through the myths created for purposes of propaganda.
The crusades were fought in defence of Christian civilisation. As G. K. Chesterton said, ‘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.’ Critics of the crusades, he argued, ‘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.’
Indeed, if one takes a more supernatural view of things, there is much to admire in the crusading spirit. Most crusaders made huge sacrifices in order to travel to the East – mortgaging or selling their lands and leaving loved ones with little hope of return. Yet they followed the dictates of conscience and the call of the Church by believing that Deus lo Vult! (God wills it!). Many saints promoted the cause, including St Bernard, St Francis of Assisi and St Pius V. Unlike many people today who see the Church and ask, ‘What’s in it for me?,’ the crusaders asked, ‘How can I serve the Faith?’ They made the long journey because they believed and yearned for salvation. Even Edward Gibbon admitted this in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – ‘I will dare to affirm,’ he wrote, ‘that allwere prompted by the spirit of enthusiasm, the belief of merit, the hope of reward, and the assurance of divine aid.’
Going back to the three models I presented you with at the start of this talk, which one is closest to the truth? The crusades were certainly not a precursor to the modern war on Islamist terror – for one thing, a crusade is called by the Church and the recent hostilities in Iraq have been repeatedly condemned by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Nor can the crusades be simply written off as a conflict ‘fuelled by fear, greed and hatred.’. Perhaps my childhood games with toy crusaders unwittingly captured something of the truth. Although there was much about the crusaders that was not heroic, we can admire their courage and desire for salvation. With this ‘alternative view’ in mind, let us end with the words of the great French historian, Henri Daniel-Rops. Perhaps he exaggeratesslightly, but the thoughtful Christian can surely agree with his sentiment:
To all appearances the balance [of the Crusades] was disastrous: So much suffering, so many sacrifices for so little. France alone lost thousands of men in these expeditions to the Holy Land, and the treasuries of Christendom were exhausted. Materially speaking, none of the ends in view were achieved…Nor had a reunion of Churches been effected…But if the great adventure of the
crusades was in many respects disappointing, can we say that it was useless and harmful? No. The crusades, more than any other event in medieval history, enabled Christendom to become conscious of its own fundamental unity. Notwithstanding differences of race and nationality, men felt the existence of a higher unity, a kind of spiritual association, with the Pope at its head and the little kingdom of Palestine as the fatherland and symbolic link. That is why the crusades, despite their failure, can be considered one of the outstanding achievements of the medieval Church…As long as Christianity endures on earth, as long as there exists a civilisation from which Christian principles have not been wholly banished, there will be men to treasure these pages of sanctity and heroism, inscribed by the crusaders with their blood.
November/ December 2019
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