Revisiting the Crusades

Revisiting the Crusades

The Crusades have been much in the news of late, but their legacy is misunderstood.

Read Time:
2m 52sec

"The Real History of the Crusades" by Thomas F. Madden, in Crisis Magazine (Apr. 2002), 1814 1⁄2 N St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

Thanks to Osama bin Laden, the Crusades have been getting a lot of bad press lately. The terrorist warlord has often alluded to them—denouncing the U.S. war on terrorism as a new Crusade against Islam, for example—and some Westerners seem to accept his notion that the West committed a grievous injustice.

All this talk leaves Madden, a Saint Louis University historian, dumbfounded. The notion that the Crusades were "brutal and unprovoked attacks against a sophisticated and tolerant Muslim world" smacks of historical revisionism. Yes, the Crusades were bloody and the Crusaders at times merciless, but far from being wars of aggression, the Crusades were defensive measures taken to protect the Christian world from overthrow by warmongering Muslim rulers.

Following the death of Muhammad in the seventh century, Muslim conquerors rapidly spread their faith with the sword, toppling Christian regimes in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. By the 11th century, Islam had replaced Christianity as the dominant world religion, spreading across most of the Middle East, as well as North Africa and Spain. After Muslims conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), vastly reducing the extent of the Byzantine Empire, Pope Urban II convened the Council of Clermont in 1095 to rally "the knights of Christendom." Their mission was to liberate Jerusalem and other holy places, and to rescue the Christians of the East from Islamic rule. The First Crusade was an ad hoc and ill-funded affair, yet it ended in victory in 1099 when the Crusaders took Jerusalem and began to establish Christian states in the region. Few would last more than a century.

Although it’s been said that the Crusaders were little better than pirates "who took advantage of an opportunity to rob and pillage in a faraway land," Madden observes, recent scholarship suggests otherwise. Crusaders were generally wealthy landholders who sacrificed their lives and material possessions in the name of God and their fellow Christians in the Holy Land. Crusading was considered "an errand of mercy to right a terrible wrong." While a few Crusaders returned rich, most went home with nothing.

It’s true that there was brutality on both sides. In 1204, Crusaders even sacked the Byzantine capital of Constantinople after a dispute with a claimant to the throne, closing an "iron door between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox" that has never been reopened, Madden notes. (Pope Innocent III excommunicated all those who participated in that Crusade.) But Muslims in the conquered lands were never required to surrender their property—or their faith.

Each successive Crusade was better funded and organized, yet each was less effective than the one before it. By the 15th and 16th centuries, "the Ottoman Turks [had] conquered not only their fellow Muslims, thus further unifying Islam, but also continued to press westward, capturing Constantinople and plunging deep into Europe itself."

Only happenstance prevented Islam from moving farther west: Sultan Mehmed II had gained a foothold in Italy when he died in the late 15th century; Suleiman the Magnificent failed to take Vienna in 1529 only because freak rainstorms forced him to abandon much of his artillery.

The real field of battle, meanwhile, was shifting from the military realm to industry, science, and trade. With the Renaissance and then the Protestant Reformation, European civilization entered a new era of dynamism, and the balance of power shifted decisively to the West.

More From This Issue