What the Crusades Were Really Like (Part 1)

Thomas Madden Dispels Myths

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ST. LOUIS, Missouri, OCT. 10, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The Crusaders were not unprovoked aggressors, greedy marauders or medieval colonialists, as portrayed in some history books.

In fact, Thomas Madden, chair of St. Louis University’s history department and author of “A Concise History of the Crusades,” contests that the Crusaders were a defensive force that did not profit from their ventures by earthly riches or land.

In fact, Thomas Madden, chair of St. Louis University’s history department and author of “A Concise History of the Crusades,” contests that the Crusaders were defensive wars, not wars of conquest.

Madden shared with ZENIT the most popular myths about the Crusades and the modern findings that prove them wrong.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Monday.

Q: What are some common misconceptions about the Crusades? the Crusaders?

Madden: The following are some of the most common myths and why they are wrong.

Myth 1: The Crusades were wars of unprovoked aggression against a peaceful Muslim world.

This is as wrong as wrong can be. From the time of Mohammed, Muslims had sought to conquer the Christian world. They did a pretty good job of it, too. After a few centuries of steady conquests, Muslim armies had taken all of North Africa, the Middle East, Asia Minor and most of Spain.

In other words, by the end of the 11th century the forces of Islam had captured two-thirds of the Christian world. Palestine, the home of Jesus Christ; Egypt, the birthplace of Christian monasticism; Asia Minor, where St. Paul planted the seeds of the first Christian communities — these were not the periphery of Christianity but its very core.

And the Muslim empires were not finished yet. They continued to press westward toward Constantinople, ultimately passing it and entering Europe itself. As far as unprovoked aggression goes, it was all on the Muslim side. At some point what was left of the Christian world would have to defend itself or simply succumb to Islamic conquest.

Myth 2: The Crusaders wore crosses, but they were really only interested in capturing booty and land. Their pious platitudes were just a cover for rapacious greed.

Historians used to believe that a rise in Europe’s population led to a crisis of too many noble “second sons,” those who were trained in chivalric warfare but who had no feudal lands to inherit. The Crusades, therefore, were seen as a safety valve, sending these belligerent men far from Europe where they could carve out lands for themselves at someone else’s expense.

Modern scholarship, assisted by the advent of computer databases, has exploded this myth. We now know that it was the “first sons” of Europe that answered the Pope’s call in 1095, as well as in subsequent Crusades.

Crusading was an enormously expensive operation. Lords were forced to sell off or mortgage their lands to gather the necessary funds. Most were also not interested in an overseas kingdom. Much like a soldier today, the medieval Crusader was proud to do his duty but longed to return home.

After the spectacular successes of the First Crusade, with Jerusalem and much of Palestine in Crusader hands, virtually all of the Crusaders went home. Only a tiny handful remained behind to consolidate and govern the newly won territories.

Booty was also scarce. In fact, although Crusaders no doubt dreamed of vast wealth in opulent Eastern cities, virtually none of them ever even recouped their expenses. But money and land were not the 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.

They underwent such expense and hardship because they believed that by coming to the aid of their Christian brothers and sisters in the East they were storing up treasure where rust and moth cannot corrupt.

They were very mindful of Christ’s exhortation that he who will not take up his cross is not worthy of Christ. They also remembered that “Greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

Myth 3: When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 they massacred every man, woman and child in the city until the streets ran ankle deep with the blood.

This is a favorite used to demonstrate the evil nature of the Crusades.

It is certainly true that many people in Jerusalem were killed after the Crusaders captured the city. But this must be understood in historical context.

The accepted moral standard in all pre-modern European and Asian civilizations was that a city that resisted capture and was taken by force belonged to the victorious forces. That included not just the buildings and goods, but the people as well. That is why every city or fortress had to weigh carefully whether it could hold out against besiegers. If not, it was wise to negotiate terms of surrender.

In the case of Jerusalem, the defenders had resisted right up to the end. They calculated that the formidable walls of the city would keep the Crusaders at bay until a relief force from Egypt could arrive. They were wrong. When the city fell, therefore, it was put to the sack. Many were killed, yet many others were ransomed or allowed to go free.

By modern standards this may seem brutal. Yet a medieval knight would point out that many more innocent men, women and children are killed in modern bombing warfare than could possibly be put to the sword in one or two days. It is worth noting that in those Muslim cities that surrendered to the Crusaders the people were left unmolested, retained their property and were allowed to worship freely.

As for those streets of blood, no historian accepts them as anything other than a literary convention. Jerusalem is a big town. The amount of blood necessary to fill the streets to a continuous and running three-inch depth would require many more people than lived in the region, let alone the city.

Myth 4: The Crusades were just medieval colonialism dressed up in religious finery.

It is important to remember that in the Middle Ages the West was not a powerful, dominant culture venturing into a primitive or backward region. It was the Muslim East that was powerful, wealthy and opulent. Europe was the Third World.

The Crusader States, founded in the wake of the First Crusade, were not new plantations of Catholics in a Muslim world akin to the British colonization of America. Catholic presence in the Crusader states was always tiny, easily less than 10% of the population. These were the rulers and magistrates, as well as Italian merchants and members of the military orders. The overwhelming majority of the population in the Crusader states was Muslim.

They were not colonies, therefore, in the sense of plantations or even factories, as in the case of India. They were outposts. The ultimate purpose of the Crusader states was to defend the holy places in Palestine, especially Jerusalem, and to provide a safe environment for Christian pilgrims to visit those places.

There was no mother country with which the Crusader states had an economic relationship, nor did Europeans economically benefit from them. Quite the contrary, the expense of Crusades to maintain the Latin East was a serious drain on European resources. As an outpost, the Crusader states kept a military focus.

While the Muslims warred against each other the Crusader states were safe, but once the Muslims united, they were able to dismantle the strongholds, capture the cities, and in 1291 expel the Christians completely.

Myth 5: The Crusades were also waged against the Jews.

No pope ever called a Crusade against Jews. During the First Crusade a large band of riffraff, not associated with the main army, descended on the towns of the Rhineland and decided to rob and kill the Jews they found there. In part this was pure greed. In part it also stemmed from the incorre
ct belief that the Jews, as the crucifiers of Christ, were legitimate targets of the war.

Pope Urban II and subsequent popes strongly condemned these attacks on Jews. Local bishops and other clergy and laity attempted to defend the Jews, although with limited success. Similarly, during the opening phase of the Second Crusade a group of renegades killed many Jews in Germany before St. Bernard was able to catch up to them and put a stop to it.

These misfires of the movement were an unfortunate byproduct of Crusade enthusiasm, but they were not the purpose of the Crusades. To use a modern analogy, during the Second World War some American soldiers committed crimes while overseas. They were arrested and punished for those crimes. But the purpose of the Second World War was not to commit crimes.

[Monday: The Crusades and today]

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