The Crusades: Principles and Perspectives

In case you missed it, all the experts (and non-experts) have been “speaking truth to power” regarding President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast this past Thursday. The crusades are in the news again, which I suppose will be great for book sales and the news circuit. I’m not sure anyone is going to be the better for it—I’ve been seeing scholars I know and respect tearing each other down in print throughout the weekend, and the fallout is going to last for a long time.

Adding my two cents’ worth to this debate gives me no joy, as columnists and commentators tend to indulge in ego rather than argument, and often little good comes of these exchanges. However, I always tell my students that one of the values of studying medieval history is being able to discern accurate and inaccurate uses of the medieval era in modern discourse, and I can’t very well not practice what I preach. So, donning intellectual “hip boots,” so to speak, let’s wade into the quagmire of claim and counter-claim about the crusades (I’m leaving the Inquisition for another time).

I. The Remarks

The key passage that has sparked outrage and counter-outrage is highlighted below (fewer people are focusing on the subsequent remark about India). Since context is important, the compass of the argument is included as well:

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.  In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.  And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

And, first, we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

My personal reaction was one of slight annoyance but relief that the example, such as it was, was used fairly adroitly to support a larger point with which I’m very much in sympathy: a little humility goes a long way. Broken down a bit more, here’s what I see:


Good, strength, tenacity, compassion, love from all faiths Those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends

Crusades – Inquisition – slavery – Jim Crow



Anti-Semitism in Europe

Inference 1: Religion, sui generis should promote peace, love and good will
Inference 2: Those religions that don’t do the above sacrifice their legitimacy
Inference 3: In the past, Christianity has justified, or been used to justify, things that we would find objectionable today.

II. Responses. These fall into two broad categories: sympathetic and unsympathetic. I’m not going to give them lots of space; you can read them if you’re so inclined.


Christopher Ingraham, WP“What Obama should have said about Islamist terrorism, the Crusades and religious violence.”

Jonah Goldberg, National Review“Horse Pucky from Obama.”

Max Boot, Commentary“What Obama Should Have Said at the Prayer Breakfast.”

Thomas F. Madden, National Review“Getting Medieval: Let’s Leave the Middle Ages out of discussions of modern Islam.”  And his 2009 article at First Things has been republished lately as well, “Inventing the Crusades.”

On the sympathetic side:

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, New Republic, “Conservatives Have Stooped to Defending the Horrific Crusades.”

David M. Perry, three columns, one at the Guardian “Conservatives want to rewrite the history of the Crusades for modern political ends”, and two on his blog, “Crusades and Memory,” and “Crusades and Religion–Who Decides What is ‘True’ Crusading.”  And he has a useful “resources” post as well.

Matt Gabriele, at Virginia Tech, storified tweets on the topic.

Michael D. Shear, NYT “Obama, Trying to Add Context to Speech, Faces Backlash Over ‘Crusades.'”

Jay Michaelson, “Was Obama right about the Crusades and Islamic extremism?”

III. Ten Questions

There are essentially two different debates going on. The first debate really isn’t one, or much of one—no one (except maybe Douthat?) is taking issue with the President’s basic point, which is that a little humility goes a long way, especially when you have immense power and are faced with the challenge of taking on a great evil. Mostly, folks seem to be talking past this, because humility is in short supply these days (though in all I’ve read, both sides have attempted to co-opt the word “humility”). To me, not believing that you know best all the time makes great sense: to do otherwise is to be on the verge of committing the first of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride. And it slowly kills or perverts one’s capacity for true compassion and kindness. I can’t fault the President’s advocacy here.

The second debate is the big one, and it’s on the crusades (the Inquisition and the President’s remarks on India are getting much less coverage {I’ll just say that I don’t understand Madden’s position on the Inquisition at all, even granting that it was a complex…thing}). There are two sides here. On the one hand you have those who essentially rally around Tom Madden’s article in the National Review, and those who rally around David Perry’s article in the Guardian and his several blog posts. I have major problems with both sides, which I suppose comes from my personal background in the field. Although a crusades scholar myself, I was mostly trained in the German school (probably the only crusades scholar in the U.S. who was) and therefore often find myself questioning things others gloss over, or accepting things that others say should be rejected for reasons I don’t agree with. To put the cards on the table, I think Madden has the better of the research end of things, and Perry of the context. Since this should be a constructive exercise, I’m not going to go through the different articles line by line—that’s destructive, and I’ve already seen too much of that in the last five days. So, let’s play a game of 10 questions instead.

1. When did the crusades start, and when did they end? I put this first because this is one of the biggest fallacies on both sides of the argument—the begged question of what we mean by “crusade.” Popular columns take the 1095-1291 time frame for granted. There is a start and an end state, and when we talk about crusade we know exactly what we mean by it. In fact that is not the case at all. The crusades didn’t start in 1095, and they didn’t end in 1291 with the fall of Acre. The next 150 years after Acre were filled with detailed plans for the new military conquest of the Levant, and some of those plans almost got off the ground. In fact Madden himself, in The New Concise History of the Crusades, tacitly blames Martin Luther for the failure of the plan that would have seen a united Christendom sweep the Muslim powers before it in glorious victory (glorious for whom?). Adam Knobler has recountedhow the crusade was alive and well in 19th-century Europe, and, as the Punch cartoon below shows, was trucking along in World War I as well. It’s a likely story that in 1920 the French General Gouraud, upon the French occupation of Damascus, announced “Saladin, we have returned.” So, a major problem of those around the Madden pole, and an inadvertent error on the part of the President, is that the crusades long outlived the Middle Ages.

But when do they begin? I’m not one of the “abracadabra” crusades scholars, who believe that the concept sprang from Urban II’s head, fully armed as Athena from Zeus, in 1095 (ok, that was for effect—I hope no one really believes that anymore). The point is, fighting wars with Christian justification had been going on for a long time, whether or not these earlier conflicts matched whatever “crusade checklist” you’re using. Charlemagne’s wars against the Saxons, Pope Leo IV’s wars against the Muslim powers around the Tyrrhenian Sea, did set some important precedents for religious justification of warfare, and the Spanish campaigns in the 1000s were heavily backed by the religious authority of the Church. Further, a slow but steady radicalization of Christian perceptions of Islam and Judaism had been underway since the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre by the “Mad Caliph” al-Hakim in 1009, and in the decades before 1095 the Vindicta Salvatoris (the Savior’s Vengeance) began appearing as a theme in French church services. In short, the physical Jerusalem was very much in the “public” eye before 1095, and had been informed by over two centuries of conflict with non-Christian peoples. Gabriele remarks that the nostalgia for the crusades “stems from an understanding of the past as unchanging, one where Christians have always been at war with Muslims and always will be at war with Muslims.” Unfortunately, I think the weight of scholarship and sources is against Gabriele here.

However, just because you didn’t like your non-Christian neighbors did not entail a whole-sale mobilization of every cultural, political, and military resource you possessed. In fact, it never did. Never. Crusade was rarely such an overriding consideration to Western Christians it trumped politics, survival, and common sense. This is one of the biggest fallacies to which I think both sides tacitly subscribe: that you can treat “the crusades” as a block, and that they can automatically define any and every moment of medieval history. The crusades were a bewildering variety of discrete, finite campaigns that had start dates and end dates, and the term “the crusades” does not mean two hundred uninterrupted years of fighting unfortunate Muslim powers. Furthermore, while most western Europeans would know someone who went to the wars for the Holy Land, most did not actually go themselves. And beyond the individual level, never did the crusade operate outside of politics (having just finished a study of medieval Germany for Routledge’s The Crusader World, I’m more than ever convinced of that).

So, a long-standing antagonism to your southern neighbors, and a preoccupation with the typical world of politics, war, and religious community defined the Roman Christian world before 1095. If there was no sudden or imminent catastrophe, then…

2. Were the crusades a defensive war? This is a huge point for Madden, not as big a big point for Perry, who (incorrectly, in my opinion) goes to some lengths to discount the relevance of just war theory to the issue. The question is actually an important one, because justification lies at the heart of this debate. If you are attacked, defending yourself is not a crime, right? So it’s no surprise that much of the reaction to the President’s perception of the crusades as a violent perversion of religion has focused on the defensive nature of the war. Were the crusades defensive?

In a physical sense, it honestly depends on where you are looking in 1095. Northern Europe itself was not under any threat of conquest and occupation by overwhelming Muslim armies. Paris, Rome, Mainz, Westminster, Milan, Buda–none of these places was facing, even remotely, the threat of invasion. “Self-defense,” in the sense of an imminent threat, was not a reason for going to war against the Muslim powers that held the Levant. In that sense, the oft-repeated trope that the Crusades (i.e., the Jerusalem campaigns) were defensive is disingenuous, to say the least.

However, in both the Iberian Peninsula and in southern Italy, the answer would have been somewhat different. The Norman conquest of Sicily (starting in 1061) had largely ended any threat (or annoyance, rather) the Emirate of Sicily posed to Christian powers in Italy, and the new Norman masters were beginning to enjoy the prosperous infrastructure that the emirate had developed. It could be argued, as Chevedden does, that these were “crusades from the very first.” Meanwhile, in the Iberian peninsula, the situation by 1095 was far more complex: Alfonso VI’s wars against the Taifa kingdoms of Spain led to the capture of Toledo in 1085, prompting the Almoravid invasion to restore the fortunes of al-Andalus, which happened at the Almoravid victory at Sagrajas. Urban II considered the Iberian wars serious enough to discourage and outright forbid Iberian participation in the Jerusalem campaign.


So, in 1095 the places that responded to the call for a Jerusalem campaign were not under threat of invasion. Furthermore, as has often been pointed out, the activities of emirs in North Africa, Sicily, Morocco, and Iberia were the result of local initiatives, not a monolithic Islam or an Abbasid/Fatimid/Seljuk master-plan. The Fatimids in Egypt could barely influence the North African rulers, or those in the Syria and Palestine (this is a complex story on its own). The same could almost be said for the conflicts around Catholic Europe’s periphery: while the Papacy regarded the Normans as one part of a larger conflict (see below), quite often the popes could do no more than attempt to influence events, communications technology and power networks being what they were. The long and the short of the matter is that to imply that there was an imminent physical threat to Christendom, as Bernard Lewis and Madden do, is disingenuous at least.

From a medieval perspective, however, it was a defensive war, but what made it defensive was a calculus outside the rationale of the modern nation-state: a combination of religious community and realpolitik diplomacy. A (schismatic) Christian power [Byzantium] requested military assistance organized by the spiritual leader of western Christianity, which leader was compositing a grim picture of the state of the eastern churches, while the “heat map” of conflicts with various Muslim powers continued to fill. This may not be a modern nation-state’s rationale for waging war, but in medieval terms it was more than enough, and sound philosophically and theologically. Paul Chevedden has argued, quite persuasively, that Urban II regarded the Jerusalem campaign as but one prong of a three-pronged effort to roll back the border between Christianity and Islam. The realpolitik aspect of Urban’s relationship with Byzantium has recently been analyzed by Peter Frankopan in The First Crusade: The Call from the East, and this has to be combined with the study of individual crusaders’ motivations. To exclude the political and power relationships of 1095 in favor of an appeal to personal piety (as Madden tends to do) is as mistaken as to say that religion enabled the events that followed Urban II’s sermon, and leave it at that (which is what Perry tends to do). All of these are accurate, and they are accurate simultaneously. By any perspective of Christian just war theory, the First Crusade was launched for the right reasons, and Urban II was very careful to make sure that it was (Perry’s questioning of the sources is incorrect, in my opinion). That may be uncomfortable for all parties concerned, but that doesn’t make it less true.

So, in that case…

3. Were the crusades a distortion of medieval Christianity? Madden says absolutely not, and he is right—though he doesn’t follow this to its logical conclusion. Christianity had been used to justify war for a long time before 1095 (Byzantium vs Persia in the 600s, Charlemagne vs the Saxons in the 800s are two examples), and it continued to be used all the way to 1917 and beyond.

World-War-1-Cartoons-Punch-1917-12-19-415 Most religions, I suppose, have a pacifist and a martial side to them, and  whether you think the one or the other is a distortion depends on your  beliefs. Having a martial side to a religion does not mean it cannot coexist  with other beliefs—the Christian-Muslim conflict in the Levant is full of  examples of coexistence (recent research on settlement in the Latin  Kingdom, or the Muslim Quarter of Acre, for instance).  But claiming that  the martial side of Christianity is a distortion of the religion itself allows us  to duck the issue apparently keenly felt by some commentators, and so neatly summarized by Perry: “either the bad stuff done by long-dead Christians has  nothing to do with modern Christianity; or maybe the Crusades weren’t so  bad for Muslims and Jews after all.” That, of course, opens another can of  worms, and leads us to questions of “intensity,” scale, and comparison.

4. Does motivation make a difference? One of the biggest changes in crusades studies over the last 30 years has been the realization that motivation matters in understanding a movement like the crusades. Many people feel, I think, that if we can find the “right” motives, we can render crusaders usable. If we emphasize piety, sacrifice, devotion, hardihood, and bravery, aren’t we promoting good virtues? Yes, but not at the expense of context. ISIL fighters, after all, often display admirable qualities for a terrible cause (and ISIL, interestingly, is ready to argue its atrocities on historical and theological grounds as a means of strengthening its claims to legitimacy). Soldiers in the Wehrmacht in World War II displayed admirable qualities as well, and committed an appalling amount of atrocities to the point that there has been some regret that the Wehrmacht wasn’t classified as a criminal organization in 1945 (great, now I’ll have the “good German army” folks on my back…bring it). More particularly, in the absence of detailed evidence for participants, how can we be sure that “our” crusader never committed any of those appalling atrocities that some justified by Christianity? We can’t; unlike the copious documentation for soldiers of the Wehrmacht, we can’t establish the presence or absence of crusaders from specific atrocities in more than general terms, nor do we have oral and private testimony about how they would have reacted when confronted with said atrocities. What we can do is recognize that the devotion that drove a poor Norman knight to travel three thousand miles could also make him indifferent to news of the slaughter of Jews, and an eager participant in the sacking of cities. And furthermore, recent scholarship has argued that vengeance was an equally powerful corollary to devotion, and simply acknowledging that medieval devotion was shaped by concepts such as vengeance should put the breaks on constantly trumpeting “motivation” as the key to understanding. Motivation helps us understand, but only partly, and does not constitute a justification in itself—and devotion did not equal motivation.

If motivation involved more than just devotion, then…

5. Did the Crusades contain atrocities that the perpetrators justified by appealing to Christianity? Absolutely. Chris Hayes’ tweet is utter nonsense. [Edit: and apparently a joke, I have been told. Apologies Mr. Hayes.] The slaughter at Jerusalem and the pogroms in the Rhineland are the two most famous examples, and there is no—repeat no—way to claim that these acts were somehow separate from Christianity (unless you want to take the route that the Catholic Church never represented Christianity in which case…you’re wrong). Richard’s slaughter of prisoners at Acre I would classify as a calculated military and diplomatic atrocity (there is also a strong argument that the Jerusalem massacre in 1099 was calculated as well). The rub comes when we have to decide whether atrocities determine the character of the event as a whole, or how many atrocities we need before the event’s essence is altered, or what actually constitutes an atrocity, or whether we should use medieval or modern definitions of atrocity. This is where people will divide and never find common ground. The Rhineland pogroms are a great example of this. For Madden, the perpetrators were not “true” crusaders, while for Gabriele and Perry they certainly were: subsequent judgments of the movement as a whole flow from this point. The “truth,” inasmuch as there is one, is somewhere in the middle, and come September, hopefully, you can read my analysis on the topic in The Seven Myths of the Crusades (which I wish was already published…).

Nevertheless, these issues have to be dealt with, and attempting to paint them with a broad brush, as liberal columnists do, is as weak a move as conservative columnists who try to discount any evidence of atrocities. What I’ve seen people are debating, really, is scale.

6. Does scale matter? Depending on the nature of the claims you make, yes it does. This is one point where I think the liberal articles come off the worse—which is unfortunate, since the conservative reaction is to shrug off atrocities the more. And here’s where both Madden and Perry are wrong. Madden brings up Baybars’ massacre of Antioch and some very fishy numbers for Saladin’s supposed “bloodiness.” Antioch, at least, is a good example, though even that could not compare with what the Mongol armies did to Baghdad in 1258. But it elides the point, that there were plenty of atrocities to go around, and that includes the Christian armies. On the other hand, Perry’s paragraph in The Guardian, while carefully worded, conveys entirely the wrong impression: “we generally agree that the intensity of the religiously-motivated brutality was staggering.” Not quantity, but intensity—though that really can’t be measured. The impression is that the ridiculous casualty figures given by other columnists can be taken at face value, and that historians are agreed on the context of brutality. Neither is accurate, and both sides again give the impression of an uninterrupted block of events about which we can make sweeping claims. I would hope that we’ve put Terry Jones’ ridiculous crusades “documentary” aside by now.

In fact, though most crusades historians won’t admit this, the actual conduct of crusades closely resembled wars that were not crusades.

7. Were the crusades worse than other medieval wars? Yes, but not by much. People have slaughtered each other for comparatively little cause throughout history, and to fight for one’s religion and co-religionists was, in terms of motive, far from the worst cause the Middle Ages witnessed. Sons rising in rebellion against their fathers, causing misery and death because of the kind of crown they might wear or the number of provinces they would rule—that to me is a miserable cause. Flemish and Norman knights fighting a war for what they thought was a just cause, or Saladin’s son celebrating when the king of Jerusalem’s tent fell at Hattin? You could do worse. But within what Will Hasty has termed the “logic of confessional struggle” (Art of Arms), I would say that there existed greater “conditions of possibility” (Andrew Latham’s term) for atrocity–in fact, I think the record of pogroms in the First, Second, and Third Crusades, and the Hussite Crusades, indicates that much. And let’s not forget the Albigensian Crusades. None of this should be very shocking: even when atrocities did not occur, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that initial conditions gave them a higher possibility of occurring.

This only becomes clear, however, if you have a perspective wider than crusade itself. As a military and crusades historian, I would also say that trying to place “the crusades” outside the normal discourses of war and power, as if you have to take the blue pill to understand them, is ontologically flawed, and neither side in this debate is approaching them in a way that I find logical or productive.

If I don’t need the blue pill to understand crusade, but I’m also saying that they were embedded within political and religious institutions, then how do you assess the crusades beyond structure and politics? The answer lies in culture, which I think is how you can assess the impact of a thing.

8. So, how influential were the crusades reallyOne of the biggest errors in Madden’s approach isn’t the emphasis on motivation and mainstream Christianity—he is right on both counts. The problem is all the things that are not there: a constant stream of literature, songs, customs, sermons, and public events that surrounded every campaign to the east (and were increasingly institutionalized after the Third Crusade of 1189). In 1095, the papacy could barely control the enthusiasm for the campaign in regions where it was preached, and we will never know all the ways in which the idea influenced behavior. By 1215, it was impossible to escape the presence of crusade virtually anywhere both within and without Christendom (if you don’t like that term, by all means use another). And the fact is, a lot of the material from the 1100s and 1200s would shock if you were to read it. Crusade sermons deployed an arsenal of negative biblical images of Muslims, which only became sharper over time (in fact, the arrival of the Mongol tumans in the 1230s threw preachers for a loop, because there was no ready-made image of these new peoples). The hugely popular French song cycle on the First Crusade opens with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem as divine revenge for the Crucifixion—a theme revisited in the 1300s with the graphically brutal English Siege of Jerusalem.

And speaking of England, one of the most popular stories in medieval England was the romance of Richard the Lionheart, in which there is a scene (meant to be high comedy) in which the army is running low on food, so the king’s servants cook a Muslim prisoner and serve him to the unsuspecting king, who pronounces it the best pork he’s had in ages. No, I’m not making this up: you can read an excellent analysis of it here (I’m not the biggest fan of Heng’s work in general, but this is very good). The reluctance to talk about the cultural side of crusading stems in part, I think, from a Catholic reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of anything outside of papal dictates (this certainly inflects Madden’s take on the pogroms of the First Crusade as absolutely being outside “legitimate” crusading). But if crusading helped to spawn a “national” literature in which one side jokes about cooking the other side, that can’t be a positive thing to emulate, right?

If the Crusades are this complicated…

9. Why try to take ownership of the Crusades? On the popular front, one thing I find mildly amusing about all this is that the many of the people tweeting and blogging about the Crusades a) know very little about the Middle Ages, and b) are usually the first to call something “medieval” when they want to denigrate it. So why this sudden passion for the Crusades when the President uses them as an example of religious violence? More particularly, why this insistence that the crusades represented a noble impulse of the human spirit, when you don’t really like or admire anything else from the Middle Ages? I suspect it comes down more to a certain despair of modern Western culture: devotion to the American nation-state and the ideals it claims to serve doesn’t seem to be enough. You have to go back to a time when people left their homes, traveled 3,000 miles, and fought and often died for a cause that brought most of them no profit. If you reimagine yourself in this light, suddenly the task, the mission, seems easier to bear. It’s an interesting situation to study. As a military historian, I find the juxtaposition between the last ten years of “hearts and minds” and the steady evidence of crusader patches worn by American soldiers supremely ironic. The subtexts of American Sniper deliver a similar message—analyzed here by my old colleague Kate (in the only genuinely good crusades column written this past week).

10. Where do we go from here?  Good question.

For my part, I think the President’s goal was right on the money, and the example, ultimately, not as bad as many I’ve heard in the past. At the very least, if you interpret his remarks to mean “in a war against ISIL, we are not going to use the crusading paradigm,” I don’t think you have much ground to complain. In any case, I wonder if the issue is likely to be remembered a year from now. Perry, in an attempt to channel the discussion, posted “Six Arguments about Crusade and Memory” yesterday evening. They seem good enough on face, but in all honesty, they really don’t get us anywhere—despite the hope that “[m]aybe a real discussion could break out.” I’m not going to get into the detailed reasons of why I find the six arguments either stating the obvious or eliding the issue, though I will say that after reading several dozen articles and interminable comment feeds on Facebook and elsewhere, neither side in the debate displays the grasp of methodology, philosophy, or argumentation that I had expected from distinguished historians whose work I have admired for some time. Perry notes that his politics are liberal, and Madden’s are conservative, and unfortunately that divide will determine what you think of the whole debate. Given the current climate of public discourse in the U.S., neither side is going to be convinced. One is going to condemn (with caveats), the other extol (with caveats). We’re all partisan, in the end, I suppose. Or perhaps it’s just the format of social media.

Which is to say that if you’re expecting a comparable six-point program, I don’t have one, nor does anyone else. All I can do is summarize my position in those nifty bullet points…

  • By medieval standards, the Crusades were just wars.
  • Crusades are most effectively analyzed as individual wars, from the context of the politics and power of their times.
  • Crusading permeated medieval European culture, often in bad ways.
  • The crusades saw horrific atrocities committed, both from religious and military reasons.
  • The perpetrators of atrocities justified themselves either from Christianity or military necessity.
  • As wars go, the crusades were marginally worse than non-religious conflicts.
  • The Crusades did not end in 1291, but continued to be an organizing idea for Europe’s conflict with non-European peoples through the First World War.
  • There is a great longing for crusades in modern American culture, for rather contradictory reasons.
  • The President’s mentioning of the Crusades as an instance of Christian-sanctioned violence is accurate on face; the suggestion that they were perversions of Christianity less so.
  • Regardless of whether war can be necessary (and I certainly think it can be), sweeping condemnations or praise of crusading is good politics, but bad history.

If ever there was a topic whose interpretation, as Hayden White wrote, caused “perplexity in face of the real,” the Crusades would be it. The issue both sides face is ultimately one of perspective, and has made me think of one of my favorite essays from Veronica Wedgwood, “Principles and Perspectives”:

The things which we believe to be right, the things which we believe to be true, vary widely from age to age and the same holds good for the past times which are the historian’s province. If we make no allowance for these variations we become rigid and stultified, lacking in human imagination, unable to bring full understanding either to the present or to the past, accepting received ideas and traditional prejudices instead of judging for ourselves. If we make too much allowance for the changing standards and the shifting of opinions we begin to lose all sense of moral stability. Historical thinking has always fluctuated between these two dangers, the danger of having no perspective at all, and the danger of having one only; the danger of having no principles at all and the danger of having principles that are too rigid.

I’m not sure we can give a better prescription than Wedgwood did fifty years ago: understand the pitfalls of moral historical judgments and figure out what you believe. That means actively studying issues of just war, religious sanctioning of violence, and your own society—especially American history, where much violence is/has been practiced, but is often not very visible (here I will plug the Biddle and Citino White Paper on studying military history, just because).

It also means making a serious effort to understand past societies, and recognizing that you will likely look for sympathetic figures in the past, even though, for the Middle Ages at least, even the most sympathetic of figures probably espoused values that would make you uneasy. That doesn’t mean that, within the context of the times, there weren’t good people, good causes, charity, and hospitality—there were Righteous Gentiles in Mainz in 1096, and coexistence of faiths at various times in Iberia and the Levant. But these moments existed alongside casual, often brutal violence, grotesque humor, and a simple conviction that, as the Song of Roland put it, “the pagans are wrong, the Christians are right.” I know that for any medieval historical figure who I find sympathetic or “likable” in a medieval context, I remind myself that I probably wouldn’t want to have a beer with that person.

After all, if you believe in a democratic society in which all faiths and ethnicities are welcome to live in peace, respect, and equality before the law, then you wouldn’t want to live in the Middle Ages. But are we (the royal “we”) much different from those 1095? I often remember a chap I met down in New York City some years ago, when I was visiting friends. Somehow the cannibalism at Ma’arra came up (as it does), and he muttered in disgust, “Animals…” I remember thinking, “You have a lot to learn about humanity, my friend, if you think that you’re better than those folk.” Of course, we were thinking past each other: the principle expressed in his very righteous horror passed my rather sad historical perspective. Balancing principles and perspectives is hard, and, pundits and scholars notwithstanding, there is no simple solution. That you have to figure out for yourself.

[Update: for a much briefer follow-up to this post, see “The Crusades: A Few Addendums,” from February 11th.]

9 Replies to “The Crusades: Principles and Perspectives”

  1. Good write up. I hope people take the time to read it. My perception of all of this though is that bringing up the Crusades beggars a larger question which needs to be answered. Every religion from poly theism to anti theism has a certain amount of violence associated with it, especially when co-opted by political and social causes. Humanity will one day have to come to terms with how we worship God (or Science in some cases) and hopefully reject those violent tendencies.

    The larger question though, is about Islam, not Christianity. One does not have to either re-write the Crusades as justified or condemn them vociferously to be able to acknowledge that Islam also has a very violent history and currently large numbers of Muslims are engaged in violence against others and one another. It is too simplistic to simply say that Islam spread violently across North Africa and into the Iberian peninsula, but it does not make it untrue. “They attacked us first” is parochial but not without some credence. In fact I think the Christianity vs. Islam is just a long line of conflicts between East and West. It reminds me a great deal of the Greek vs. Persian debate, which I feel set the tone (at least in modern times but perhaps for much longer) for conflict between the two sides.

    Anyway the basic question, which I apologize I should have gotten to: Is Islam, despite what some people say, actually and historically a religion that not only uses violence, but enables and condones it? That Christianity or the religions of the Aztecs MAY ALSO be violent and or enable violence is kind of irrelevant. That east and west will have issues for some time post the religious wars running out of steam is irrelevant. Can we co-exist, we being the world, with Islam or will it always be in conflict with humanity as it appears to be today.

    To be fair, I think Christianity also has to or possibly has faced that question. Certainly it appears to be less violent, except perhaps here in America. Any thoughts are appreciated and if you feel I am mis-characterizing something feel free to correct me.

  2. That’s a very good question, but I’m not (yet) in any sense an “expert” on Islamic history, so I really can’t answer with any assurance. My impression, for what it’s worth, and speaking very broadly, is that both religions reached an accommodation with violence fairly early in their existence, Islam earlier than Christianity. But I’m not sure how one would go about measuring “inherent violence” in a religion (that’s not ducking the question, I honestly don’t know off hand how one would measure that). I think the two religions had a very different relationship with the world, metaphysically–as in, early Christianity had a strong bend to eschatology and suspicion of the world, while Islam tended to accept its dwelling in the world. But there are also elements of early Christian teaching that dealt with violence (even, depending on the reading, sanctioned it), and it’s important to remember that by the time Muslim armies conquered Egypt and the Levant, many local populations were thrilled to be rid of the Byzantines, because this new power promised a fairness and stability that was sorely lacking in the Christian Empire. I think also that it took a long time for both religions to solidify and categorize their teachings in general.

    Regarding conquests, I think it’s more important to remember that Christian and Muslim powers were rarely ever “friends,” than to point to the historical fact of Muslim conquests. This gets to a point I didn’t discuss here, and that is the sense of ownership of the holy places that develops in France. I think it’s not studied as much as it should be, because the simple fact of Muslim conquests hadn’t elicited a massive military response *until* 1095. The crusades simply weren’t a linear response to Muslim “aggression” in the broadest sense. Rather, taking the accounts of Urban’s sermon at Clermont at face value (which isn’t a good idea), it seems the papacy had a general sense of how the arrival of the Turks had destabilized everything in the Middle East. Now, from a strategic perspective one could give Urban II a lot of credit for creating a unified strategy from different “fronts,” but average folk didn’t experience things that way.

    As for the emergence of a “reformed Islam” (for lack of a better term???); I’ve seen lots of discussion in the news, naturally, but that’s *way* outside my competence to speculate on!

  3. Good post. I wish people like you had more of a platform.

    For myself, I think Obama could have made his point more effectively by citing recent examples where Christians supported mass murder in the name of Christ. The support given by American evangelicals to people like Rios Montt in 1982, for instance. Too partisan, of course, so not an example a President could use unless he really wanted a fight, but much more relevant than what people were doing 1000 years ago. But Jim Crow is something he mentioned and it’s interesting how most of his critics preferred to focus on the Crusades.

  4. This was an interesting read, but I simply cannot understand a claim like “the pogroms in the Rhineland…there is no—repeat no—way to claim that these acts were somehow separate from Christianity”. Really? After a figure like Count Emicho is opposed by bishop, and – according to Albert of Aix – who behaved (or whose party behaved) far more like pagans than Christians, can we honestly claim that he/they were motivated by Christianity in their slaughter of the Jews? At what point is the veil pierced, so to speak, so that the member’s actions are considered autonomously and separate from the larger group to which he belongs? I think that the author’s claim would have more merit if the evidence showed no opposition or condemnation from his contemporary Christians, including those who held theological power.

    Perhaps this is also why I question the point, “The perpetrators of atrocities justified themselves either from Christianity or military necessity.” Whether there is textual evidence that indicates Emicho justified his actions in one of these two (and whether we should believe his claim, given the opposition from other Christians) is unclear to me. Did Emicho actually claim one of these as his motivation?

  5. Hi Phids, You’ve put your finger on the “crux” (no pun intended) of the issue. I will stick by my statement, however, for the following reasons:
    1. Not all chroniclers condemned the pogroms, actually. Albert of Aachen was one pole; in fact, he was unique in his direct condemnation of the persecutions. Frutolf of Michelsberg was at the opposite pole, and thought it was a job well done. The rest of the German chroniclers fall somewhere in between–some deliberately pass over the pogroms, others discuss them in muted terms. But the popular image of everyone condemning the pogroms isn’t entirely accurate. Which loops back to your question (and mine too), how many do you need before you cross a definition-line?
    Key article: Eva Haverkamp, “What Did the Christians Know? Latin Reports on the Persecution of Jews in 1096,” Crusades 7 (2008): 59-86.
    2. Emicho. What was he after, why did these people turn to murder and persecution? Recent analysis has pretty conclusively shown that a) their goal was killing first, conversion a distant second, and b) they justified their actions for reasons that were apocalyptic, scriptural, and seemed rational to many people at the time. The key point here is that all the anti-Jewish beliefs that surfaced in the Rhineland pogroms were already widely prevalent throughout western Christendom–pollution, uncleanness, vengeance, guilt, Satanic connections (this last from Gregory VII). So, when you seriously analyze the beliefs and ideology behind the Rhineland persecutions, it becomes much harder to box them off from “average” Christianity circa-1090. Now, whether you reject *all* these beliefs as aberrations and delusions is another story, but in the context of the times, no, you can’t say that Emicho et. al.’s beliefs stood apart from “mainstream” Christianity at that time. In many features, they simply didn’t.
    Key articles:
    –Robert Chazan, “‘Let Not a Residue or a Remnant Escape’: Millenarian Enthusiasm in the First Crusade,” Speculum 84 (2009): 289-313.
    –Matthew Gabriele, “Against the Enemies of Christ: The Role of Count Emicho in the Anti-Jewish Violence of the First Crusade,” in Christian Attitudes Toward the Jews in the Middle Ages: A Casebook, ed. Michael Frassetto (New York: Routledge, 2007).
    –David Malkiel, “Destruction or Conversion: Intention and Reaction, Crusaders and Jews, in 1096,” Jewish History 15 (2001): 257-280.
    –Israel Jacob Yuval, Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
    3. Subsequent condemnation. Yes, Emicho and other leaders were condemned by the bishops of the places they assaulted. And Pope Urban II and Emperor Henry IV pronounced that the forced conversions were not legitimate. However, these pronouncements were not greeted with much joy, as the pogroms simply reinforced a fear of apostasy from Christianity, and while we know that the emperor’s decree was promulgated, we really don’t know if the survivors were allowed to return to Judaism (or if they were welcomed when they did). The attitude of many Christian intellectuals after 1099 was inflected by two concerns: a) a sense that Judaism was obsolete, since Jerusalem was in Christian hands again, so who cared; b) a desire to rid the story of the crusade from any “Jewish” influences. This can be seen in the work of Guibert of Nogent and Geoffrey of Monmouth. “Condemnation” of the Rhineland pogroms wasn’t really a high priority for many people, which it should have been, if the pogroms were thought to have been such a betrayal of Christian values. Further, several of Emicho’s comrades did make it to the main crusade armies, where they were welcomed as good crusaders, and praised highly–apparently slaughtering Jews in the Rhineland wasn’t a bar to being a good crusader. This last point is always overlooked in these discussions, but Kostick’s article below discusses some of these men.
    Key articles:
    Elizabeth Lapina, “Anti-Jewish rhetoric in Guibert of Nogent’s Dei gesta per Francos,” Journal of Medieval History 35 (2009): 239-253.
    Kenneth Stow, “Conversion, Apostasy, and Apprehensiveness: Emicho o Floheim and the Fear of Jews in the Twelfth Century,” Speculum 76 (2001): 911-933.
    Konstick, Conor, “Iuvenes and the First Crusade (1096-1099): Knights in Search of Glory?”, The Journal of Military History 73 (2009): 369-392.
    Lawrence Warner, “Geoffrey of Monmouth and the De-Judaized Crusade,” Parergon 21 (2004): 19-37.

    Ultimately, the reason I said the pogroms can’t be separated from Christianity is that the case supporting *that* assertion is very, very strong–stronger than blaming “crusade” for the pogroms. The way I see it, crusade wasn’t directed at Jews, but was a catalyst for a society that was already downgrading the way it interpreted Judaism. At the end of the day, crusade and anti-Judaism had separate paths, though they overlapped a fair bit. But one could persecute Jews and still be a good crusader, and that historical fact has got to be addressed.

  6. Good point. A few questions.

    So do you really see all Christian on Muslim wars from medieval times through WWI as part of a continuous tradition of Crusading?

    There’s no doubt the British under Allenby used Crusading imagery. But in northern Europe especially, from the reformation and enlightenment until 19th century high imperialism, weren’t the Crusades regarded mainly as a folly and a bloody waste? Crusader nostalgia reappears in episodes from the late 19th century through the 19th century, but I don’t think it applies to western interveners self-perception in most cases. In particularly, at the time of the American Barbary wars, I think at least the relevant Presidents regarded the fight as emphatically not about religious difference but about liberty and the rights of citizens.

    I agree on this point: “Self-defense,” in the sense of an imminent threat, was not a reason for going to war against the Muslim powers that held the Levant. In that sense, the oft-repeated trope that the Crusades (i.e., the Jerusalem campaigns) were defensive is disingenuous, to say the least.”

    Even in a more extended sense of protecting lives and property of pilgrims there’s some elements of at least debateable justifiability in the taking of Jerusalem. The power that the Pope and the Byzantine Emperor in 1095 had cited as most provocative and abusive of pilgrims in Jerusalem was the Seljuk Sultanate. And indeed early on the Crusaders fought the Seljuks. But by the time the Crusaders got to Jerusalem, it was under the rule of the Fatimid Caliphs, non-participants in Seljuk provocations. So the continued campaign to take Jerusalem at that point was not even a counter-offensive or reprisal, but aggression pure and simple. Of course, naturally the Crusaders were all armed and armored up had gotten almost all the way there, and would have felt let down stopping short of Fatimid held territory (ie, I know stopping would have been unrealistic) but they were stretching the boundaries of Augustinian just war theory pretty darn far (as they did in most wars in Europe also of course).

    Also this was interesting:
    “Paul Chevedden has argued, quite persuasively, that Urban II regarded the Jerusalem campaign as but one prong of a three-pronged effort to roll back the border between Christianity and Islam. ”

    What did he envision as the three geographical prongs?

  7. A very helpful, informative and balanced posting. Thanks,

    I would like to take the macro, macro view for just a moment, and observe that it is in the postmodern modern west that scholars are able to have, read, and enjoy such debates and critiques of history without fear of government censorship, without fear of physical attack, and without fear of persecution, coercion or retribution. Alas, in many of the geographical places where crusading actually occurred, the same cannot be said.

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