Recently, at the National Prayer Breakfast, American President Barack Obama compared the Crusades and the Inquisition to ISIS’s list of atrocities. Nor is he the only president to hold this view of the Crusades. The Crusaders are regularly condemned as ignorant fools who destroyed a much more sophisticated and noble civilization out of a sense of fanaticism, or as cynical imperialists using the guise of religion to line their pockets. However, neither of these views has any true historical evidence behind it.
First off, let’s dispel any idea that the Crusades were wars of aggression. The Holy Land was in Islamic hands because they conquered it from the Byzantine empire in the year 637. The Byzantine empire was steadily losing ground to Islamic conquest, and so issued a call for help. When the Crusaders responded to that call, they quite naturally regarded the lands that had been taken as being taken in wars of aggression, and so not rightfully the property of the Turks. Furthermore, the Crusaders moved to take back the Holy Land because the Byzantine plea for aid coincided with regime change. In 1071, the Seljuk Turks conquered Jerusalem from the Fatimid Egyptians. The Fatimids were, relatively speaking, tolerant of Christians. Pilgrimages brought in extra cash, and the Christian communities often provided goods that Muslim communities had no tradition in, such as ship building. When the Seljuk Turks took over, however, they began considerably harsher persecutions, such as massacring large groups of Christians and blocking off all access to the Holy Places. Some suggest that the pilgrims who managed to return home helped ferment the necessary political will for the Crusades to go.
Nor were these the only examples of Islamic aggression. The Muslim empire swept through most of the oldest Christian communities, leaving only the newest of Christian communities surviving in Europe. Mohammed was born just 70 years after the first Catholic King of the Franks, Clovis, was baptized. We think of Europe as Christian, but the truth is that the Heart of Christianity at the time was in the old lands of Africa, Greece, Italy, and the Middle East. Islam eventually wiped out all of these but Italy, which was threatened on many harrowing occasions. Islam swept through all of Spain, and was only stopped at the battle of Tours. The Arabian slave trade took more than a million Christian Europeans captive, which lead more specifically to the Battle of Lepanto. In short, these wars had been fought on Christian ground for hundreds of years, and the Crusades represented little more than an attempt to take the fight to the enemy’s ground, while recovering priceless Christian holy places.
But what of the accusation that the Crusaders were ruthless and materialistic imperialists, seeking to line their own pockets? This accusation, too, is groundless. The Crusaders were almost all either kings or very great lords, who had no shortage of material goods to plunder within easy traveling. The costs, on the other hands, of these lords transporting their retinues and armies, were so great as to require them to take out massive mortgages on their traditional estates. (This, incidentally, led to the Church owning so much land, as monasteries often provided the mortgages for this risky venture. When the lords were killed and the loans defaulted, they used the land for expanding the monastery.)
Nor is there evidence of the Crusaders attempting to reap significant profits. After the conquest of Jerusalem, most of the Crusaders left almost immediately. Few tried to set up the estates that could have brought revenue in. This is even more pronounced in the third Crusade, where the Crusaders withdrew after negotiations ensured the safety of the pilgrims. If their real object was exploitation and conquest, then why didn’t they continue fighting with their real goal unachieved? And if riches were their goal, why attack an arid, waterless country, at a time when agriculture and trade were the vast majority of the economy?
We move from discussing the justice of the war and the Crusaders’ motives to the Crusaders’ conduct within the war. Many charge the Crusaders as acting with needless brutality, accusing them of massacres, torture, and many other such atrocities. The two incidents they usually specifically bring up are the first taking of Jerusalem in 1099, and the sack of Constantinople in 1204.
Former President Bill Clinton described the Crusaders as “Wading in blood to their horses’ knees.” Now just think about that. Is that in any way credible? First, the Crusaders had been coming for months, and as preparation for their coming, the ruler of Jerusalem had expelled all Christians. Is it reasonable to think that the Christians were the only civilians to leave the city in the face of this assault? Given that the Christians outnumbered the Muslims at the time, We’re looking at a city that already had more than half its population fled. In 1099 AD, there just couldn’t have been many other civilians to be slaughtered. But secondly, and more important, Islamic sources do not record the siege as being any different than sieges usually went. In Medieval times, there were higher civilian casualties, which, though unfortunate, could scarcely be avoided. We have virtually no evidence of any kind of systematic genocide, while we do have eyewitness evidence that there were a considerable number of survivors.
The Sack of Constantinople, in 1204, is indeed a sad story. The Crusaders of the 4th Crusade ran into financial difficulties, and couldn’t pay the transportation costs need to go. Therefore, they hired themselves out as mercenaries in a Byzantine civil war. They eventually wound up on the losing side, with no money, and hostile Byzantines all around them. Desperate, they assaulted the City of Constantinople, took it, and stole their promised reward by force, while slaying many of the inhabitants. It is generally believed that this massacre was retribution for an earlier massacre of Western Christians, where almost 20,000 were killed. Now these circumstances can only mildly mitigate their guilt, it cannot remove it. But consider that the Pope immediately excommunicated the errant Crusaders, and that an aberration does not condemn the normal pattern. If I murder someone on my way to grocery store, it means murder is wrong, not going to the store.
Consider, too, the number of just causes that have had bad servants. The Allies had to execute more hundreds of their own men in World War II for murder, rape, etc. Does that mean that overthrowing Hitler was a bad cause? Far from it!
In short, the Crusades, while imperfect at times, were well motivated and often well executed, and by beating back the tide of the advancing Islamic armies, helped save Western Civilization. We owe them all a great debt.