A Politically Incorrect (But Historically Accurate) Assessment of the Crusades By Reed Benson
Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast not many weeks ago, an annual presidential venue that was once a place where Jesus Christ's name and faith were respected, Barack Hussein Obama said this in an attempt to downplay a recent gruesome atrocity committed at the hands of ISIS—burning alive a prisoner of war: "And lest we get on our high horse and think that this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ." Mr. Obama reflexively tends to minimize execrable acts done by Muslims in the name of Allah while flippantly insulting Christianity at every opportunity. Indeed, he is not alone in this; it is the new paradigm of the cultural leftists in America. But are they right? This discussion will not explore the Inquisition; but respecting the Crusades, is it true that in the name of Christ Crusaders did terrible deeds? Mr. Obama implies that Christians should be ashamed of the period of history known as the Crusades, and by extension, ourselves, since we bear a connection to them. Is he correct? Should we shrink back into our closets, mortified at what our European forefathers did one thousand years ago? Is it right and appropriate to draw a moral equivalence between what ISIS did a couple of months ago and what our European ancestors did one millennium ago?
For those who need a refresher, the Crusades were a historical movement that officially began in 1095 in Clermont, France, when Pope Urban II called for volunteers to form a military force to liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Islam. The following year, the First Crusade was launched, and the city was captured in 1099. For the next eighty-eight years, Crusading forces from France, England, and other Western European nations ruled Jerusalem and a substantial swath of land along the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, known to them as Outremer, literally "over the seas." A grave setback occurred in 1187 when Muslims took Jerusalem. Subsequent efforts to retake it failed, yet the Crusading spirit remained vibrant for another century and Europeans maintained a forceful presence in the coastal cities of the Holy Land until their expulsion in 1291.
Looking at these distant events, what should one make of the Crusades? Are the critics like Barack Hussein Obama correct? Is this historical movement a blot upon Western Civilization?
Point of Criticism: The Crusaders had no claim to the land. It was Muslim land. False. It was Christian land before it was Muslim. After the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christianity slowly but steadily grew in popularity and influence throughout the eastern Mediterranean, including Judea and Jerusalem. Within a hundred years Jerusalem was recognized as one of the four primary centers of Christianity, its bishop holding the title Patriarch, a rank retained until the city's capture in the seventh century. Thus, the Holy Land was originally part of the general church world, a prominent province of the Christian Byzantine Empire, and Jerusalem was accorded a unique position of high status as the mother of Christendom four full centuries before Islam was invented. During this time, hundreds of beautiful churches were built and scores of Holy Sites identified as places that pilgrims might wish to visit.
In 614, the Sassanid Empire (from what is today called Iran) overran most of Syria and Palestine, smashing the resistance of Jerusalem's Christian defenders. Twenty-four years later the Muslims captured it, and the remaining Christians were compelled to acknowledge Caliph Omar as their master. However, the record of history is unambiguous; it was Christian land long before it was Muslim, and as the geographical womb of Christianity it is only reasonable that believers in the faith of the Nazarene would hold it uniquely dear. The Christian Byzantine Empire made several concerted attempts to liberate Jerusalem, but without success. When finally the Latin Kingdoms of Western Europe launched the First Crusade in 1095, it was only after the realization that the Byzantines were unable to get the job done and after a wearisome trail of abuses of had been perpetrated on Christian residents.
Some European who "took up the cross" viewed themselves as agents of Roman Church officials, others were stimulated out a private sense of conviction, and a few were grubbing for a new stake in life and hoped for a financial reward. But all believed they were liberating what had been stolen from the Christian faith and were imbued with a sense of sacred duty.
Point of Criticism: The Crusades were launched from a European society permeated with primitive religious bigotry. False. It is true that religious sentiment permeated Europe. But this was also the case in the Middle East and all the known world. However, the religious habits and beliefs of European Christianity were not primitive. The liturgy and theology of the Roman Catholic Church, then dominant in Europe, were sophisticated and complex. The laity were not ignorant by contemporary standards and were on average more literate than Muslim populations. It was an age of faith. This does not mean that everyone in Europe from the Crusading Era was a saint, a scholar, or that society was perfect; but it was a time in which people made radical life decisions because of their faith in Jesus Christ. The modern secular-humanist world, lacking faith, struggles to understand the authentic religious worldview of this period and is thus severely handicapped when trying to understand the Crusades.
Furthermore, for Protestant Christians, it is important to recognize that the Roman Catholic Church of 1095 was not identical to that of 1517 in theology and practice. While the Roman Catholic Church had strayed from the purer doctrines of the Apostolic Church, the extreme abuses that launched the Protestant Reformation were far less ubiquitous in 1095. Indulgences could be earned through pious acts but could not be purchased. Transubstantiation, although officially endorsed in 1215, was not emphasized as the primary means by which grace was conferred to the believer. The Inquisition, that notorious office of the Roman Catholic Church that used such harsh measures to eliminate heretical teachings, was introduced on a small scale near the end of the Crusading period, not the beginning. It furthermore played no role whatsoever in either the motives or the strategy to regain the Holy Land. Even clerical marriage, although officially discouraged, was relatively common in 1095. In short, many of the errors of the Roman Church that set the stage for the Reformation were largely absent in 1095, the year of the Crusades' origin.
It is modern mythical nonsense that Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade out of craven, wicked motives. In fact, he was responding to a heavy stream of appeals from the Eastern Mediterranean pleading for help because Christians were suffering extraordinary abuse at the hands of cruel Islamic oppressors. It is out of benevolent sympathies that he sought to use the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church to correct such injustices.
Point of Criticism: The Crusaders were cruel in their conquest and in their administration of captured territories. False. Over the course of two centuries, a varied array of hundreds of thousands of European soldiers went to the Holy Land from many countries marching under a variety of kings and nobles. It would be ridiculous to assert that among such a vast host that engaged in scores of major battles and sieges that never was an act of cruelty committed. However, in general, this is a most unjust charge. Rarely did European armies slaughter Muslim prisoners. The rich were held for ransom while the poor were exchanged in a prisoner swap or eventually released. Critics of the Crusades point to two episodes, so let us consider each of them.
The first was in 1099 when some 12,000 soldiers of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem after a six-week siege and slaughtered many of the Muslim residents. But many other Muslims in the city were spared. Recent research suggests the civilian death toll was far less than the multiple thousands that Islamic chroniclers claimed at the time. Additionally, consider what this Crusading army had already endured. Nearly one hundred thousand soldiers had embarked on the First Crusade two full years previously. (This does not include the simultaneous Peasants Crusade of some twenty thousand that was entirely butchered by Muslims down to the last man, with woman and children being sold into slavery.) They fought pitched battles and sieges at Doryleum, Nicea, Iconium, Antioch, and Tripoli. They had been abandoned by their Byzantine escorts, betrayed by a Muslim emir who had arranged a truce, seen former comrades who had been captured have their corpses catapulted back at them, and suffered hunger to the extent that they ate horses and rats. The hard-bitten survivors of this horrific campaign had seen their ranks reduced by over 80%. Thus, when they finally reached the goal for which they had prayed and dreamed, Jerusalem, perhaps we ought to temper our criticism for their one-time excess in that moment of fearful triumph.
The second episode of alleged European cruelty came some ninety years later in the Third Crusade. It is now fashionable in Western pop culture to condemn Richard the Lion-hearted for his execution of nearly three thousand Muslim prisoners after the siege of Acre in 1191 while simultaneously lauding Sal-a-din, the Islamic sultan of Egypt, for his chivalrous spirit. The reverse is far closer to the truth. Consider briefly the rest of the story. Richard's capture of the great port city of Acre had taken the Crusading forces from several European counties three years. When the Muslim garrison of Acre finally surrendered, Sal-a-din had agreed to deliver three items in return for these three thousand lives: fifteen hundred Christian prisoners, a ransom in gold, and the true cross (this was believed to have been the actual structure on which Jesus was crucified and Sal-a-din had captured four years earlier at the Battle of Hattin). In short, Sal-a-din reneged on his pledge and slaughtered the Christian prisoners. After waiting for many days, Richard had his prisoners executed over the course of an afternoon—one after the next—in full sight of Sal-a-din's army in an effort to compel Sal-a-din to honor what was left of the agreement. This Sal-a-din refused to do. Yes, Richard the Lion-hearted killed unarmed prisoners, but Sal-a-din could have prevented it, and by the accepted standards of war in that period, Richard committed no breach of protocol.
As far as the Crusaders’ administration of the territories they controlled in the Middle East, they were far more lenient on Muslim populations than Islamic Emirs were toward Christians. Everyone paid land rents to the local military overlords, be they Christian or Muslim, in accordance to feudal custom. But not infrequently, Christian residents were given the choice of conversion to Islam or else perish. And, if this grim choice were not imposed, they certainly had these additional burdens: a special tax just for being a non-Muslim, called the jizya; a prohibition against the repair of Christian churches; a prohibition against Christian schools; and a death penalty for proselytization. Muslims under the Crusader overlords suffered no such persecutions and were allowed to practice their faith without molestation, a remarkable degree of religious toleration for that time in history.
As a final thought regarding the cruelty of the times, consider that the pagan Sassanid capture of Jerusalem in 614 witnessed an enormous slaughter of Christians; estimates range from 17,000 to 90,000. When the Muslims subsequently conquered the Holy Land, additional atrocities were commonplace. The reality was that warfare in this period was often cruel. Crusaders were, on the whole, kinder than their adversaries.
Point of Criticism: The Crusaders' true motives were selfish: money, wealth, and personal aggrandizement. The Fourth Crusade proves this. False. Already pointed out in this article is the fact that within a movement lasting two centuries and involving hundreds of thousands of participants, there would surely exist a variety of motives. Yet, in general, it is most accurate to say that most men who "took up the cross" did so for what they believed were sound spiritual reasons. On the surface, the Fourth Crusade appears to be the most hypocritical of endeavors. Why? Because the entire expedition, instead of attacking Muslims and attempting to liberate Jerusalem, stormed and looted the city of Constantinople, the Greek Christian capital of the Byzantine Empire. Being Christians, it was supposed they were allies against the Islamic hosts of the Middle East. However, the reality is more complex than what it appears. Organized as a maritime operation, the leader of the Fourth Crusade, the Marquis of Montferrat, sensibly observed that transporting an army to the Muslim Middle East was easiest by water rather than a long, overland march. Few navies could transport the 35,000-man army that had promised to go. Venice was the only state that could be persuaded to transport this host, and only for the sizable sum of 85,000 silver marks, an expense that would be borne by the great lords leading the expedition. In 1202, when the fleet was ready and the army was supposed to be assembled at Venice for departure, only about half of the expected nobles and men were present. Local conflicts in France prevented the rest from coming. Not having enough money to pay the Venetians, who resolutely demanded payment since they had suspended trade to organize the huge fleet, a new means of financing the Crusade was needed. Fortunately, a scheme presented itself. Constantinople was in the midst of a dynastic struggle. The brother of the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius Angelus, volunteered to make up the difference if the Crusaders would help him reclaim his throne, after which he would assist the Crusaders in retaking the lost portions of the Holy Land. A bargain was struck: in short, the Venetians transported the Crusading army, and the attack on Constantinople commenced. A bewildering sequence of political maneuvers internal to Byzantine affairs finally resulted in the desired result. But there was one problem: although Alexius had regained his throne, he could not pay the promised sum. So the Venetian fleet, underpaid and angry, sailed for home. Feeling cheated and betrayed by both the Venetians and Alexius, the Crusaders sacked the city and set up their own government. Not knowing what to do next, some Crusaders remained in Constantinople permanently. Others, ashamed at having participated in this plundering of a Christian city, quietly made their way home the best they could.
On the whole, the Fourth Crusade was poorly planned. The results were a pitiful display of human nature's dark side. Critics never wish to be reminded of other more noble enterprises, such as the two crusades of Louis IX (1249-1254 and 1270), the pious king of France so beloved and admired that he is known to the world as Saint Louis. Although he failed to win back Jerusalem, he fought with determination and honor and ultimately died while on his expedition. To suggest that the bungled effort known as the Fourth Crusade characterized the movement as a whole is unjust and dishonest.
Point of Criticism: The Crusaders and European civilization were beneficiaries of a superior Islamic culture and opened Europe to spices, Arabic numerals, the astrolabe, medical texts, the lateen sail, chess, and architectural techniques like the onion dome. False. Most large scale, long-term conflicts result in an exchange of ideas and discoveries that flow both ways. The Crusaders brought to the East superior castle building techniques, better armor, and stronger horses. What they took back to Europe with them were not Muslim in origin, but things that other cultures produced and Islamic states merely copied. There were two older cultures from which Islam received ideas and methods.
First, from the ancient Indian subcontinent came an array of spices that were welcome to any diet: pepper, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, paprika, curry, and tea. Similarly, "arabic" numerals, that is, a decimal system of calculation based on powers of ten, came from India—including the innovative concept of holding a place for zero. Chess, of course, became popular in medieval Europe and was indeed introduced by returning Crusaders; but it did not originate with the Muslims. Rather, they obtained it from the Sassanids in Persia, who in turn learned it from ancient Indian sources.
The second original source was the Greeks. From the early Byzantine Greeks the Muslims learned how to make the graceful arch and the conventional dome. What we think of as the characteristic Islamic onion dome was developed by the later Byzantine Greeks and successfully copied by many who followed—including the Muslims, the Russians, and later, the Indians. This is also true of texts on human anatomy. Ancient pagan Greeks did little in the area of human anatomy; but after the general conversion of the Greek world to Christianity, extensive investigation was done, and these texts survived. Subsequently, Muslim Arabs copied them. The Greek mathematician Hipparchus, in the second century before Christ some eight hundred years before Muhammad concocted Islam, first invented the astrolabe, a tool of enormous value in navigation. And the lateen sail, also a useful innovation in navigation, was developed in Egypt for use on the Nile River during the period when Egypt was colonized by the Ptolemaic Greeks, again hundreds of years before any Muslims appeared on the world stage.
The summation of the matter is this: the Muslims are respectable copycats but poor innovators. This is not to say that Arabs are all innately unintelligent. However, the Islamic faith is absolutely regressive and discourages investigation and creativity. Europe did benefit from contact with the Middle East during the Crusading period, but the originators of the new ideas were not the Muslims.
Point of Criticism: The ultimate failure of the Crusading movement is proof that it did not have God's blessing. False. The success or failure of any action is not the basis of morality or justice. To argue thus is a dangerous way to view past events. Was Abel a failure because God did not protect him from Cain? Was Stephen of Acts chapter seven a failure because the mob stoned him, cutting off his marvelous ministry in its infancy? Is secession an invalid idea because the Confederacy failed to achieve independence? Were England, France, and the United States more righteous than Germany and Austria when they won the First World War and imposed upon them the Treaty of Versailles? Was God's blessing with the Russian Soviets because they were on the winning side in the Second World War? Does might make right? No.
Additionally, the Crusades were not necessarily a failure anyway. The retention of territory in the Holy Land lasted almost two hundred years—many generations. This is nearly as long as America's tenure as an independent nation, which is almost universally acknowledged as a great success of world history. No human achievements are permanent, so we cannot measure the value or success of any human activity simply on the basis of its duration. The Crusades were one portion of a much larger conflict that began when Muhammad invented his new religion. That clash continues to this very day. It will continue into the future as long as Islam is committed to converting the planet through force and what remains of the Christian West maintains its determination not to be engulfed by this evil juggernaut.