Watchman Willie Martin Archive

So what is the truth about the Crusades? Scholars are still working some of that out. But

                        much can already be said with certainty. For starters, the Crusades to the East were in

                        every way defensive wars. They were a direct response to Muslim aggression—an attempt

                        to turn back or defend against Muslim conquests of Christian lands.

                        Christians in the eleventh century were not paranoid fanatics. Muslims really were gunning

                        for them. While Muslims can be peaceful, Islam was born in war and grew the same way.

                        From the time of Mohammed, the means of Muslim expansion was always the sword.

                        Muslim thought divides the world into two spheres, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of

                        War. Christianity—and for that matter any other non‑Muslim religion—has no abode.

                        Christians and Jews can be tolerated within a Muslim state under Muslim rule. But, in

                        traditional Islam, Christian and Jewish states must be destroyed and their lands conquered.

                        When Mohammed was waging war against Mecca in the seventh century, Christianity was

                        the dominant religion of power and wealth. As the faith of the Roman Empire, it spanned the

                        entire Mediterranean, including the Middle East, where it was born. The Christian world,

                        therefore, was a prime target for the earliest caliphs, and it would remain so for Muslim

                        leaders for the next thousand years.

                        With enormous energy, the warriors of Islam struck out against the Christians shortly after

                        Mohammed’s death. They were extremely successful. 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 and Spain. In the eleventh

                        century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which had been Christian

                        since the time of St. Paul. The old Roman Empire, known to modern historians as the

                        Byzantine Empire, was reduced to little more than Greece. 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.

                        That is what gave birth to the Crusades. They were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope

                        or rapacious knights but a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which

                        Muslims had already captured two‑thirds of the old Christian world. At some point,

                        Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam. The

                        Crusades were that defense.

                        Pope Urban II called upon the knights of Christendom to push back the conquests of Islam

                        at the Council of Clermont in 1095. The response was tremendous. Many thousands of

                        warriors took the vow of the cross and prepared for war. Why did they do it? The answer to

                        that question has been badly misunderstood. In the wake of the Enlightenment, it was

                        usually asserted that Crusaders were merely lacklands and ne’er‑do‑wells who took

                        advantage of an opportunity to rob and pillage in a faraway land. The Crusaders’ expressed

                        sentiments of piety, self‑sacrifice, and love for God were obviously not to be taken seriously.

                        They were only a front for darker designs.

                        During the past two decades, computer‑assisted charter studies have demolished that

                        contrivance. Scholars have discovered that crusading knights were generally wealthy men

                        with plenty of their own land in Europe. Nevertheless, they willingly gave up everything to

                        undertake the holy mission. Crusading was not cheap. Even wealthy lords could easily

                        impoverish themselves and their families by joining a Crusade. They did so not because they

                        expected material wealth (which many of them had already) but because they hoped to

                        store up treasure where rust and moth could not corrupt. They were keenly aware of their

                        sinfulness and eager to undertake the hardships of the Crusade as a penitential act of

                        charity and love. Europe is littered with thousands of medieval charters attesting to these

                        sentiments, charters in which these men still speak to us today if we will listen. Of course,

                        they were not opposed to capturing booty if it could be had. But the truth is that the

                        Crusades were notoriously bad for plunder. A few people got rich, but the vast majority

                        returned with nothing.

                        * * *

                        Urban II gave the Crusaders two goals, both of which would remain central to the eastern

                        Crusades for centuries. The first was to rescue the Christians of the East. As his successor,

                        Pope Innocent III, later wrote:

                        How does a man love according to divine precept his neighbor as himself when, knowing that

                        his Christian brothers in faith and in name are held by the perfidious Muslims in strict

                        confinement and weighed down by the yoke of heaviest servitude, he does not devote

                        himself to the task of freeing them? ...Is it by chance that you do not know that many

                        thousands of Christians are bound in slavery and imprisoned by the Muslims, tortured with

                        innumerable torments?

                        "Crusading," Professor Jonathan Riley‑Smith has rightly argued, was understood as an "an

                        act of love"—in this case, the love of one’s neighbor. The Crusade was seen as an errand of

                        mercy to right a terrible wrong. As Pope Innocent III wrote to the Knights Templar, "You

                        carry out in deeds the words of the Gospel, ‘Greater love than this hath no man, that he lay

                        down his life for his friends.’"

                        The second goal was the liberation of Jerusalem and the other places made holy by the life

                        of Christ. The word crusade is modern. Medieval Crusaders saw themselves as pilgrims,

                        performing acts of righteousness on their way to the Holy Sepulcher. The Crusade

                        indulgence they received was canonically related to the pilgrimage indulgence. This goal

                        was frequently described in feudal terms. When calling the Fifth Crusade in 1215, Innocent

                        III wrote:

                        Consider most dear sons, consider carefully that if any temporal king was thrown out of his

                        domain and perhaps captured, would he not, when he was restored to his pristine liberty and

                        the time had come for dispensing justice look on his vassals as unfaithful and

                        traitors...unless they had committed not only their property but also their persons to the

                        task of freeing him? ...And similarly will not Jesus Christ, the king of kings and lord of lords,

                        whose servant you cannot deny being, who joined your soul to your body, who redeemed

                        you with the Precious Blood...condemn you for the vice of ingratitude and the crime of

                        infidelity if you neglect to help Him?

                        The reconquest of Jerusalem, therefore, was not colonialism but an act of restoration and an

                        open declaration of one’s love of God. Medieval men knew, of course, that God had the

                        power to restore Jerusalem Himself—indeed, He had the power to restore the whole world to

                        His rule. Yet as St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached, His refusal to do so was a blessing to

                        His people:

                        Again I say, consider the Almighty’s goodness and pay heed to His plans of mercy. He puts

                        Himself under obligation to you, or rather feigns to do so, that He can help you to satisfy

                        your obligations toward Himself.... I call blessed the generation that can seize an

                        opportunity of such rich indulgence as this.

                        It is often assumed that the central goal of the Crusades was forced conversion of the

                        Muslim world. Nothing could be further from the truth. From the perspective of medieval

                        Christians, Muslims were the enemies of Christ and His Church. It was the Crusaders’ task

                        to defeat and defend against them. That was all. Muslims who lived in Crusader‑won

                        territories were generally allowed to retain their property and livelihood, and always their

                        religion. Indeed, throughout the history of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Muslim

                        inhabitants far outnumbered the Catholics. It was not until the 13th century that the

                        Franciscans began conversion efforts among Muslims. But these were mostly unsuccessful

                        and finally abandoned. In any case, such efforts were by peaceful persuasion, not the threat

                        of violence.

                        The Crusades were wars, so it would be a mistake to characterize them as nothing but piety

                        and good intentions. Like all warfare, the violence was brutal (although not as brutal as

                        modern wars). There were mishaps, blunders, and crimes. These are usually

                        well‑remembered today. During the early days of the First Crusade in 1095, a ragtag band of

                        Crusaders led by Count Emicho of Leiningen made its way down the Rhine, robbing and

                        murdering all the Jews they could find. Without success, the local bishops attempted to

                        stop the carnage. In the eyes of these warriors, the Jews, like the Muslims, were the

                        enemies of Christ. Plundering and killing them, then, was no vice. Indeed, they believed it

                        was a righteous deed, since the Jews’ money could be used to fund the Crusade to

                        Jerusalem. But they were wrong, and the Church strongly condemned the anti‑Jewish


                        Fifty years later, when the Second Crusade was gearing up, St. Bernard frequently preached

                        that the Jews were not to be persecuted:

                        Ask anyone who knows the Sacred Scriptures what he finds foretold of the Jews in the

                        Psalm. "Not for their destruction do I pray," it says. The Jews are for us the living words of

                        Scripture, for they remind us always of what our Lord suffered.... Under Christian princes

                        they endure a hard captivity, but "they only wait for the time of their deliverance."

                        Nevertheless, a fellow Cistercian monk named Radulf stirred up people against the

                        Rhineland Jews, despite numerous letters from Bernard demanding that he stop. At last

                        Bernard was forced to travel to Germany himself, where he caught up with Radulf, sent him

                        back to his convent, and ended the massacres.

                        It is often said that the roots of the Holocaust can be seen in these medieval pogroms. That

                        may be. But if so, those roots are far deeper and more widespread than the Crusades. Jews

                        perished during the Crusades, but the purpose of the Crusades was not to kill Jews. Quite

                        the contrary: Popes, bishops, and preachers made it clear that the Jews of Europe were to

                        be left unmolested. In a modern war, we call tragic deaths like these "collateral damage."

                        Even with smart technologies, the United States has killed far more innocents in our wars

                        than the Crusaders ever could. But no one would seriously argue that the purpose of

                        American wars is to kill women and children.

                        By any reckoning, the First Crusade was a long shot. There was no leader, no chain of

                        command, no supply lines, no detailed strategy. It was simply thousands of warriors

                        marching deep into enemy territory, committed to a common cause. Many of them died,

                        either in battle or through disease or starvation. It was a rough campaign, one that seemed

                        always on the brink of disaster. Yet it was miraculously successful. By 1098, the Crusaders

                        had restored Nicaea and Antioch to Christian rule. In July 1099, they conquered Jerusalem

                        and began to build a Christian state in Palestine. The joy in Europe was unbridled. It

                        seemed that the tide of history, which had lifted the Muslims to such heights, was now


                        * * *

                        But it was not. When we think about the Middle Ages, it is easy to view Europe in light of

                        what it became rather than what it was. The colossus of the medieval world was Islam, not

                        Christendom. The Crusades are interesting largely because they were an attempt to counter

                        that trend. But in five centuries of crusading, it was only the First Crusade that significantly

                        rolled back the military progress of Islam. It was downhill from there.

                        When the Crusader County of Edessa fell to the Turks and Kurds in 1144, there was an

                        enormous groundswell of support for a new Crusade in Europe. It was led by two kings,

                        Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany, and preached by St. Bernard himself. It failed

                        miserably. Most of the Crusaders were killed along the way. Those who made it to

                        Jerusalem only made things worse by attacking Muslim Damascus, which formerly had

                        been a strong ally of the Christians. In the wake of such a disaster, Christians across

                        Europe were forced to accept not only the continued growth of Muslim power but the

                        certainty that God was punishing the West for its sins. Lay piety movements sprouted up

                        throughout Europe, all rooted in the desire to purify Christian society so that it might be

                        worthy of victory in the East.

                        Crusading in the late twelfth century, therefore, became a total war effort. Every person, no

                        matter how weak or poor, was called to help. Warriors were asked to sacrifice their wealth

                        and, if need be, their lives for the defense of the Christian East. On the home front, all

                        Christians were called to support the Crusades through prayer, fasting, and alms. Yet still

                        the Muslims grew in strength. Saladin, the great unifier, had forged the Muslim Near East

                        into a single entity, all the while preaching jihad against the Christians. In 1187 at the Battle

                        of Hattin, his forces wiped out the combined armies of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem

                        and captured the precious relic of the True Cross. Defenseless, the Christian cities began

                        surrendering one by one, culminating in the surrender of Jerusalem on October 2. Only a

                        tiny handful of ports held out.

                        The response was the Third Crusade. It was led by Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa of the

                        German Empire, King Philip II Augustus of France, and King Richard I Lionheart of England.

                        By any measure it was a grand affair, although not quite as grand as the Christians had

                        hoped. The aged Frederick drowned while crossing a river on horseback, so his army

                        returned home before reaching the Holy Land. Philip and Richard came by boat, but their

                        incessant bickering only added to an already divisive situation on the ground in Palestine.

                        After recapturing Acre, the king of France went home, where he busied himself carving up

                        Richard’s French holdings. The Crusade, therefore, fell into Richard’s lap. A skilled warrior,

                        gifted leader, and superb tactician, Richard led the Christian forces to victory after victory,

                        eventually reconquering the entire coast. But Jerusalem was not on the coast, and after two

                        abortive attempts to secure supply lines to the Holy City, Richard at last gave up. Promising

                        to return one day, he struck a truce with Saladin that ensured peace in the region and free

                        access to Jerusalem for unarmed pilgrims. But it was a bitter pill to swallow. The desire to

                      restore Jerusalem to Christian rule and regain the True Cross remained intense throughout


                        The Crusades of the 13th century were larger, better funded, and better organized. But they

                        too failed. The Fourth Crusade (1201‑1204) ran aground when it was seduced into a web of

                        Byzantine politics, which the Westerners never fully understood. They had made a detour to

                        Constantinople to support an imperial claimant who promised great rewards and support for

                        the Holy Land. Yet once he was on the throne of the Caesars, their benefactor found that he

                        could not pay what he had promised. Thus betrayed by their Greek friends, in 1204 the

                        Crusaders attacked, captured, and brutally sacked Constantinople, the greatest Christian

                        city in the world. Pope Innocent III, who had previously excommunicated the entire Crusade,

                        strongly denounced the Crusaders. But there was little else he could do. The tragic events of

                        1204 closed an iron door between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, a door that even

                        today Pope John Paul II has been unable to reopen. It is a terrible irony that the Crusades,

                        which were a direct result of the Catholic desire to rescue the Orthodox people, drove the

                        two further—and perhaps irrevocably—apart.

                        The remainder of the 13th century’s Crusades did little better. The Fifth Crusade (1217‑1221)

                        managed briefly to capture Damietta in Egypt, but the Muslims eventually defeated the army

                        and reoccupied the city. St. Louis IX of France led two Crusades in his life. The first also

                        captured Damietta, but Louis was quickly outwitted by the Egyptians and forced to abandon

                        the city. Although Louis was in the Holy Land for several years, spending freely on defensive

                        works, he never achieved his fondest wish: to free Jerusalem. He was a much older man in

                        1270 when he led another Crusade to Tunis, where he died of a disease that ravaged the

                        camp. After St. Louis’s death, the ruthless Muslim leaders, Baybars and Kalavun, waged a

                        brutal jihad against the Christians in Palestine. By 1291, the Muslim forces had succeeded

                        in killing or ejecting the last of the Crusaders, thus erasing the Crusader kingdom from the

                        map. Despite numerous attempts and many more plans, Christian forces were never again

                        able to gain a foothold in the region until the 19th century.

                        * * *

                        One might think that three centuries of Christian defeats would have soured Europeans on

                        the idea of Crusade. Not at all. In one sense, they had little alternative. Muslim kingdoms

                        were becoming more, not less, powerful in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. The Ottoman

                        Turks conquered not only their fellow Muslims, thus further unifying Islam, but also

                        continued to press westward, capturing Constantinople and plunging deep into Europe itself.

                        By the 15th century, the Crusades were no longer errands of mercy for a distant people but

                        desperate attempts of one of the last remnants of Christendom to survive. Europeans began

                        to ponder the real possibility that Islam would finally achieve its aim of conquering the entire

                        Christian world. One of the great best‑sellers of the time, Sebastian Brant’s The Ship of

                        Fools, gave voice to this sentiment in a chapter titled "Of the Decline of the Faith":

                        Our faith was strong in th’ Orient,

                        It ruled in all of Asia,

                        In Moorish lands and Africa.

                        But now for us these lands are gone

                        ’Twould even grieve the hardest stone....

                        Four sisters of our Church you find,

                        They’re of the patriarchic kind:

                        Constantinople, Alexandria,

                        Jerusalem, Antiochia.

                        But they’ve been forfeited and sacked

                        And soon the head will be attacked.

                        Of course, that is not what happened. But it very nearly did. In 1480, Sultan Mehmed II

                        captured Otranto as a beachhead for his invasion of Italy. Rome was evacuated. Yet the

                        sultan died shortly thereafter, and his plan died with him. In 1529, Suleiman the Magnificent

                        laid siege to Vienna. If not for a run of freak rainstorms that delayed his progress and forced

                        him to leave behind much of his artillery, it is virtually certain that the Turks would have

                        taken the city. Germany, then, would have been at their mercy.

                        Yet, even while these close shaves were taking place, something else was brewing in

                        Europe—something unprecedented in human history. The Renaissance, born from a strange

                        mixture of Roman values, medieval piety, and a unique respect for commerce and

                        entrepreneurialism, had led to other movements like humanism, the Scientific Revolution,

                        and the Age of Exploration. Even while fighting for its life, Europe was preparing to expand

                        on a global scale. The Protestant Reformation, which rejected the papacy and the doctrine

                        of indulgence, made Crusades unthinkable for many Europeans, thus leaving the fighting to

                        the Catholics. In 1571, a Holy League, which was itself a Crusade, defeated the Ottoman

                        fleet at Lepanto. Yet military victories like that remained rare. The Muslim threat was

                        neutralized economically. As Europe grew in wealth and power, the once awesome and

                        sophisticated Turks began to seem backward and pathetic—no longer worth a Crusade. The

                        "Sick Man of Europe" limped along until the 20th century, when he finally expired, leaving

                        behind the present mess of the modern Middle East.

                        From the safe distance of many centuries, it is easy enough to scowl in disgust at the

                        Crusades. Religion, after all, is nothing to fight wars over. But we should be mindful that our

                        medieval ancestors would have been equally disgusted by our infinitely more destructive

                        wars fought in the name of political ideologies. And yet, both the medieval and the modern

                        soldier fight ultimately for their own world and all that makes it up. Both are willing to suffer

                        enormous sacrifice, provided that it is in the service of something they hold dear, something

                        greater than themselves. Whether we admire the Crusaders or not, it is a fact that the world

                        we know today would not exist without their efforts. The ancient faith of Christianity, with its

                        respect for women and antipathy toward slavery, not only survived but flourished. Without the

                        Crusades, it might well have followed Zoroastrianism, another of Islam’s rivals, into


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