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The Crusades: Myth vs. Truth

The Crusades-Myth-Truth
Persistent historical inaccuracies that still pervade popular thinking is that the Crusades was a war of aggression committed by Christian Europe against peaceful Muslims. This could not be more wrong.
The truth: the Crusades was a DEFENSIVE response against Islamic Imperialism and tyranny during those times. The main purpose of the Crusades is to protect Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land from Muslim persecution. Christian pilgrims were being harassed, ambushed, murdered, or sold to slavery by the thousands, by Muslim warlords. Finally, the Crusades was born out of the desperate plea of the Christian Emperor of Constantinople to the Pope and to the Christian leaders of Europe to aid their fellow Christians in the East, who were being subjugated by Muslims. The Muslim caliphs conquered former Christian lands, from Middle East, Asia Minor, and Africa, gaining vast territories, following the Muslim ideology "to conquer the world for Allah." The Islamic conquest seemed unstoppable, threatening Europe itself. The Crusades therefore was an act of defense to preserve Christian civilization.

Much of what is written here came from Dr. Thomas Madden. Dr. Madden is Chair of the History Department of St. Louis University and Director of the University's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He is considered one of the foremost historians of the Crusades. He is more on an unbiased historian. His writings are more credible and reliable than the subjective anti-historical interpretations of Karen Armstrong and Steven Runciman.

During the Middle Ages you could not find a Christian in Europe who did not believe that the Crusades were an act of highest good. Even the Muslims respected the ideals of the Crusades and the piety of the men who fought them. But that all changed with the Protestant Reformation. Protestants demonized them, Catholics extolled them. As for Suleiman and his successors, they were just glad to be rid of them. It was in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that the current view of the Crusades was born. Most of the philosophes, like Voltaire, believed that medieval Christianity was a vile superstition. For them the Crusades were a migration of barbarians led by fanaticism, greed, and lust. Since then, the Enlightenment take on the Crusades has gone in and out of fashion.

Since the 1970s the Crusades have attracted many hundreds of scholars who have meticulously poked, prodded, and examined them. As a result, much more is known about Christianity’s holy wars than ever before. Yet the fruits of decades of scholarship have been slow to enter the popular mind.

Myth: 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 eleventh 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. The First Crusade was called by Pope Urban II in 1095 in response to an urgent plea for help from the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople. Urban called the knights of Christendom to come to the aid of their eastern brethren. It was to be an errand of mercy, liberating the Christians of the East from their Muslim conquerors. In other words, the Crusades were from the beginning a defensive war. The entire history of the eastern Crusades is one of response to Muslim aggression.

Myth: The Crusades were 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 ten percent 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 united the Muslims were able to dismantle the strongholds, capture the cities, and in 1291 expel the Christians completely.

Myth: 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 incorrect 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.

Myth: The Crusades were so corrupt and vile that they even had a Children’s Crusade.

The so-called "Children’s Crusade" of 1212 was neither a Crusade nor an army of children. It was a particularly large eruption of popular religious enthusiasm in Germany that led some young people, mostly adolescents, to proclaim themselves Crusaders and begin marching to the sea. Along the way they gathered plenty of popular support and not a few brigands, robbers, and beggars as well. The movement splintered in Italy and finally ended when the Mediterranean failed to dry up for them to cross. Pope Innocent III did not call this "Crusade." Indeed, he repeatedly urged non-combatants to stay at home, helping the war effort through fasting, prayer, and alms. In this case, he praised the zeal of the young who had marched so far, and then told them to go home.

Myth: Muslims, who remember the Crusades vividly, have good reason to hate the West.

Actually, the Muslim world remembers the Crusades about as well as the West–in other words, incorrectly. That should not be surprising. Muslims get their information about the Crusades from the same rotten histories that the West relies on. The Muslim world used to celebrate the Crusades as a great victory for them. They did, after all, win. But western authors, fretting about the legacy of modern imperialism, have recast the Crusades as wars of aggression and the Muslims as placid sufferers. In so doing they have rescinded centuries of Muslim triumphs, offering in their stead only the consolation of victimhood.

I don’t deny that the Crusades were inelegant. I don’t claim that there weren’t mistakes made during the Crusades (both in strategy and in conduct). But that is the unfortunate reality of every war, since the beginning of time; it isn’t unique to the Crusades. To some degree, the Crusades may have been a little more inelegant due to the nature of the campaigns, but it was not a war of savagery—no more than any other war, anyway. The Crusades were a just war, carried out largely in honorable ways for righteous purposes, by honorable men. And if we were to ever take the time to discuss Christian injustices and weigh them against Muslim injustices during the Crusades, you would be surprised at just how out of balance people’s opinions of the Crusades really are.

"The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical.”


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