When I was young I used to read about the Crusades in the way I used to read about Biggles. While Biggles was shooting down the Hun, Richard Coeur de Lion and Ivanhoe were cutting down the Infidel in Palestine. Revisionist historians have cast Biggles as a warmonger and Palestinian Muslims as victims. Just how correct are these recent pictures of what went on?
Were the Crusades the brainchild of an ambitious Pope or rapacious knights intent on booty? Hardly. They were a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two thirds of the old Christian world. If you read about Paul's missionary journeys you will find that Christianity had spread from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, then on to Asia Minor and thence to Europe. It quickly dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. But here's the point: Christianity was not spread by armed force; it spread by word of mouth and the evidence of changed lives.
In contrast, Islam was born in war and grew the same way. From the time of Mohammed,
Muslim expansion was always by the sword. In a manner reminiscent of Hitler's Blitzkrieg, beginning shortly after the death of Mohammed, the warriors of Islam struck out against the Christians . Palestine, Syria, and Egypt - once the most heavily Christian areas in the world - quickly succumbed.
By the eighth century, Muslim armies had conquered all of Christian North Africa (where St Augustine had been bishop) and even into Spain. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor. Go to Capodocia in modern Turkey and see where the Christians were driven from their homes to live in caves. The Muslim invasion is sometimes regarded as just a fact of history while the Christian response is vilified as full of atrcoities, cannabalism and brutality. In my opinion this is a false antithesis. The Muslim invasion was brutal as were the Christian crusades; but many of the stories are exaggerated and some are entirely mythical.
At some point, European culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam. The Byzantine Empire - the eastern half of the Holy Roman Empire was reduced until little more than Greece remained. In desperation, the Emperor in Constantinople sent word to the Christians of western Europe asking them to aid their brothers and sisters in the East. One factor that contributed to the decision in the West to respond to that request came from an incident in the year 1009, when the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1039 his successor, after requiring large sums be paid for the right, permitted the Byzantine Empire to rebuild it. Pilgrimages were allowed to the Holy Lands before and after the Sepulchre was rebuilt, but for a time pilgrims were captured and some of the clergy were killed. Destruction of the Holy Places and the murder of pilgrims gave an incentive that was not easily resisted.
The Muslim conquerors eventually realized that the wealth of Jerusalem came from the pilgrims and with this realization the persecution of pilgrims stopped. However, the damage was already done, and the violence of the Seljuk Turks became part of the concern that spread the passion for the Crusades. By the time the first crusaders arrived in Jerusalem persecution of pilgrims had long stopped but of course in those days there was no 24-hour news service.
In retrospect, we can see the slow corruption of the Christian church, which probably dates from the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, which led to the identification of the spiritual with the secular power. The church grew rich and powerful with positions of authority in the church being given to relatives of the secular rulers. The people were sold myths and bribed or frightened into obedience. People who are coerced into one faith can easily be coerced into a different one when the balance of power changes.
Recently the war in Yugoslavia saw a sort of re-enactment of the crusades. The Roman Catholic Croatians were set against the Greek Orthodox Serbs, who clashed with the Muslim Bosnians; yet as was stated by a UN general on the spot; racially they are all Serbs.
Jesus never endorsed war of any physical kind. "My Kingdom is not of this world," he said, "If it were, my servants would fight." He repudiated Peter's sword thrust to take off the Temple servant's ear. "All who draw the sword will die by the sword." Yet he realised that his message would lead to battles. "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword." His message would set people against people. Because some would reject his message there would inevitably be conflict. In preparation for that conflict he advised his disciples "If you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." Yet when the disciples volunteered, "See, Lord, here are two swords," he was quick to reply, "That is enough."
I interpret that as his saying my kingdom is to be spread by word of mouth, not by violence, but such will be the opposition from unbelievers that you will need to defend yourselves. The Apostle Paul, gives us an example of someone who uses the secular law to protect himself when as a Roman citizen he is arrested in Philippi and when brought before the Roman authorities in Jerusalem he appeals to Caesar (who as he tells us in the letter to the Romans, 'bears the sword' for the protection of those who have not broken any law).
Pope Gregory VII struggled with reservations about the doctrinal validity of a holy war and the shedding of blood for the Lord and had, with difficulty, resolved the question in favour of justified violence, especially given the fact that the pilgrims to the Holy Land were being persecuted. Saint Augustine of Hippo, Gregory's intellectual model, had justified the use of force in the service of Christ in The City of God, and a Christian "just war" in defence of the sacred sites in Palestine might well be contemplated. As it happened it was Gregory's successor who initiated the First Crusade.
Looking back we can see other considerations that may have weighed with the papacy, though how much is difficult to be sure of at this distance. The Christianization of the Vikings, Slavs, and Magyars, had produced a large class of armed warriors whose energies were misplaced fighting one another and terrorizing the locals. The Christian princes of northern Iberia had been fighting their way out of the mountains of Galicia and Asturias, the Basque Country and Navarre, with increasing success, for about a hundred years. The fall of Moorish Toledo to the Kingdom of León in 1085 was a major victory and an obvious sign that the Muslims could be defeated. The Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard had conquered Calabria in 1057 and was holding what had traditionally been Byzantine territory against the Muslims of Sicily. The maritime states of Pisa, Genoa and Catalonia were all actively fighting Islamic strongholds in Majorca and Sardinia, freeing the coasts of Italy and Catalonia from Muslim raids. It appeared the tide was turning and there seemed to be a possibility of ending the schism between the eastern and western Christian church.
However, trying to apportion blame for the Crusades is a lost cause. Just try reading the Wiki article and then click on the areas that are disputed. At the time of the crusades many of the cities of Palestine, such as Antioch, had a mainly Christian population. The stories of atrocities cannot be referenced to first-hand sources and have the stench of propaganda about them. Undoubtedly there were atrocities on both sides and no Geneva convention applied. It is futile to look at past wars through the eyes of Amnesty International.
The end of the Crusades at the end of the fifteenth century did not signal the end of bloodshed. France and England had already given up crusading and were fighting each other and after the Turks were held back at the gates of Vienna, Muslims went back to fighting each other too. Religious wars continued, pitching Catholic against Protestant and Sunni against Shiite.
The word 'Crusader' has perjorative overtones for Muslims but quite the opposite for Christians. To say the crusades, a multi-century initiative by Europe, was either "good" or "bad" raises the question of "for whom?" Without the Crusades, Europeans might still being counting using Roman numerals! We might have lost Aristotle for another few centuries. The Crusades prevented further Muslim expansion into Christian territory (on as great a scale as had previously been seen) for hundreds of years; good for Christians: bad for Muslims. It is too simple to sum up with "good" or "bad". Any historian who does so is almost automatically biased.