Retouching the Egregious Distortions of the Crusades

November 2007By Philip Blosser

Philip Blosser is Professor of Philosophy at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, North Carolina.

God's War: A New History of the Crusades.  By Christopher Tyer­man. Harvard University Press (Belknap). 1040 pages. $34.95.



The Crusades are generally viewed today as the historical Western equivalent of the jihad -- only, in this case, against Islam -- a series of holy wars instigated by power-crazed popes and fought by religious fanatics. They are thought to have been the epitome of Western arrogance, self-righteousness, and intolerance -- a shameful skeleton in the closet of the Catholic Church and the Western world. By their rampaging incursion into Palestine, Crusaders are supposed to have introduced proto-imperialist Western aggression and barbarism into the peaceful Middle East and debased the enlightened Islamic culture, leaving it in shambles. From Sir Steven Runciman's classic three-volume epic, History of the Crusades, to the BBC/A&E documentary on the Crusades hosted by Terry Jones several years ago, one needn't look far for variations on this theme. These pass for standard Western histories these days, even though they are as appallingly inaccurate as they are entertaining.

Thanks to the work of historians such as Jonathan Riley-Smith (Cambridge), Edward Peters (University of Pennsylvania), Donald E. Queller (University of Illinois, ret.), and Thomas Madden (St. Louis University), some of the more egregious distortions of this portrait are being retouched. Perhaps not all would go as far as Madden in describing the Crusades as defensive wars in direct response to Muslim aggression, but there is little question that the colossus of the medieval world was Islam, not Christendom. The Crusades were clearly attempts to meet the challenge of the Muslim conquests of Christian lands in the East. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that Crusading, far from being a lucrative undertaking, was notoriously bad as an economic investment. Many wealthy noblemen were practically bankrupted by mounting a Crusading expedition. Rather, as Peters shows, a spiritual purpose animated Crusaders: While killing was normally wrong, avenging the deaths of fellow Christians as instruments of God's justice came to be seen as a positively redemptive undertaking. Crusading, as Riley-Smith has argued, was understood in this light as "an act of love" -- articulated as a self-sacrificial ideal in Christ's words, "Greater love than this hath no man, that he lay down his life for his friends" (Jn. 15:13). In Madden's view, the two primary goals of the Crusades were, first, to rescue Christians of the East who had been conquered by Muslim invaders and, second, to liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land, which had been made holy by the Incarnation and earthly life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Oxford historian Christopher Tyerman is no stranger to the views embodied either in the textbook tradition represented by Runciman's classic history of the Crusades or the more recent corrective -- others would say "revisionist" -- efforts represented by Riley-Smith and others mentioned above. Tyerman's perspective is that of a self-consciously Western secular European, trying to offer as even-handed an account of the Crusades as possible. He does not cynically assume that the Crusades were motivated only by politics and economics, or that they were precursors of colonialism and racism. Instead, he respectfully corrects the errors and untenable suppositions underlying these earlier views of the Crusades, while also giving due respect to prior scholarship where it is warranted. He neither demonizes Islam nor engages in Euro-bashing. Rather than configuring the past as "comfortingly different from the present" or as a "mirror to the present," he undertakes to explore the history of the Crusades "as far as possible on its own terms."

Tyerman thus seeks to avoid two common pitfalls of historical interpretation. The first is seen in an attitude of "condescending historical snobbery" that dismisses our ancestors as less educated, less refined, more brutal, credulous, and hypocritical than we are today. This attitude is simply born of ignorance. The second is to presume direct causal connections between atrocities committed by Crusaders and terrorist acts committed by Muslim jihadists today, or direct parallels between U.S. strategies today and the medieval Crusades. Tyerman does not excuse the Crusaders' slaughter or exonerate Christendom for its sanctification of it; neither does he vilify medieval Christianity.

Perhaps nothing so clearly illustrates Tyerman's nuanced approach to his subject as his treatment of the Fourth Crusade and its notorious sacking of Constantinople, which is usually portrayed as an irrefutable indictment against the whole Crusading endeavor. By all accounts, excesses were committed in the sacking of Constantinople. However, as Tyerman writes, "the indiscriminate violence and pillage of the assault was reined in the day after the crusaders' entry.... The sack of Constantinople was an atrocity, but in terms of the day not a war crime." Tyerman repeatedly points out that a concern that surfaced during the Crusades was whether or not their battles met the criteria for a "just war." The Crusaders did not view their own cause in every instance as being automatically just, but as one that frequently needed to be reviewed and justified.

No less unsparing is Tyerman in his efforts at even-handed and brutal honesty where it concerns memories painful to Christians, as in the Jewish pogrom of 1096. After a detailed account of forced baptisms and slaughter, he writes: "The lust for money alone cannot explain the consistent flouting of canon law and religious teaching witnessed by the repeated forcible conversions. Nothing in official Christian doctrine justified slaying Jews. Pope Alexander II had explicitly prohibited it...."

Crusading, of course, finally waned in European history. The last formal Crusade was the Holy League against the Ottomans in 1684-1699. According to Tyerman, it was the weakening of papal power and the rise of secular governments in Europe that finally doomed the Crusading impulse in Europe. This did not mean that the Crusading spirit died out altogether. "Crusading, far from an anachronism, provided one impetus for the European age of discovery," he writes. "In presenting a spiritualized vision of reality, it recognized the temporal world and the actual experience of man while offering to transform both."

Tyerman's is a massive and monumental book. Many medievalists have hailed it as the single best book on the Crusades to date, as one that may supplant, if not surpass, Runciman's three-volume classic. God's War is truly encyclopedic, treating not only the conventional Crusades in the East, but the Albigensian Crusades in France, as well as the Crusades in Spain, the Baltic, and Balkans. It brings us to the summits to view the panoramic historical sweep and recollect the insights gleaned in the course of the journey.



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Almost always when I'm talking to people and they want to denounce the Catholic Church, they always trot out their two pet, un-thought-about denunciations. They ask these two questions: "Well, what about the clerical abuse scandals?" and "Yeah, and what what about the Crusades?" (Sometimes, Galileo gets thrown in there too.) So, I'm glad to see more and more balanced treatments of the Crusades coming out.

I first began to learn about the Crusades from Regine Pernoud. I've only started to learn about this, but Belloc seems pretty good too.
Posted by: mlhearing
June 16, 2009 11:48 AM EDT
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