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Rethinking the Crusades

By Daniel Johnson


If there is one thing that everybody knows about the Crusades, it is that they were a Bad Thing. Even in the eyes of most Christians, let alone others, the Crusades were a crime against humanity, one for which apologies are due, especially to Muslims. President Bush’s early reference to the war on terror as a "crusade" was seen as a catastrophic blunder, justifying the accusations of Osama bin Laden and other Islamists who habitually refer to their enemies as "crusaders," with all the negative connotations the word now possesses.

Condemnation of the Crusades is based on the premise that they were a barbaric, unprovoked war of extermination and conquest, waged against a superior and incomparably more tolerant civilisation — in brief, an archetype of Western imperialism. Today, when the very idea of a holy war is utterly alien to Western sensibilities, it is the United States that is identified by its critics, especially in Europe, with the religious fanaticism and military rapacity of the crusaders. The Nobel Prize-winning German novelist Guenter Grass, writing soon after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, decried the "religious fundamentalism," "moral decline," and "organised madness" of the United States, and proposed that Pope John Paul II, "who knows how lasting and devastating the disasters wrought by the mentality and actions of Christian crusaders have been," issue a formal apology to the Muslim world. Kingdom of Heaven, the Crusade movie by Ridley Scott, reflects many of these same attitudes.

The facts about the Crusades are less familiar than the myths, and bear summarising briefly. The First Crusade was launched in 1095 to recover Christian control over the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the traditional location of the resurrection of Jesus, from the Saracens (a name deriving from the Greek term for Muslims and other Orientals). Against all odds, the Crusade succeeded, establishing several states, known as Outremer (literally, "overseas"), which endured for almost two centuries.

"The bloody and incessant battle to defend these isolated satellite settlements against a rising tide of Muslim aggression would change the course of history," writes Thomas Asbridge in The First Crusade: A New History (2004). Indeed, since the 18th century, historians have recognised no fewer than seven major Crusades to the Holy Land, the last in 1270. Each of them was a complex affair, sometimes involving several separate expeditions from different parts of Europe.

In 1204, the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople and established a Latin empire in the former Byzantine territories. This survived until 1261, when the Greeks reconquered their capital. With the fall of Acre in 1291, the Kingdom of Jerusalem retreated to Cyprus, protected by the military orders that had been formed to defend the Holy Land and that now began to build new bastions of Christendom in other Mediterranean islands, such as Rhodes and Malta. The crusading idea did not vanish, but none of the later expeditions that called themselves "Crusades" made any attempt to reach Palestine.

From a modern perspective, the charge sheet against the Crusades is formidable indeed. For Jews in the European Diaspora, the First Crusade was a catastrophe unprecedented since the destruction of the Temple. Three flourishing communities of the Rhineland — Worms, Mainz, and Cologne — were massacred by burghers and crusaders led by a German, Count Emicho of Leinigen, after the charismatic preacher Peter the Hermit had aroused popular hysteria. The frightful memory of these pogroms is preserved in three nearly contemporaneous Hebrew prose narratives, as well as in prayers and dirges that are recited to this day. Nor were these the only crusader persecutions of Jews. When Jerusalem fell in 1099, the Jews of the city were slaughtered along with the Muslims, and there were further assaults during the Second Crusade of 1147.

That Second Crusade, the brainchild of the great religious genius Bernard of Clairvaux, also began a process of widening of the definition of "crusade" to include campaigns against heretics and pagans in other parts of Europe. The Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula, which by 1257 had reduced the Moors to the tiny region of Granada, was given the status of a crusade. So, too, was the colonisation of the Baltic Slavs, led by the Teutonic Knights, a monastic military order modelled on the Templars and Hospitalers of the Holy Land. Between 1209 and 1229, crusades were mounted against the Albigensian Cathars in southern France, the first of many heretics to be crushed by this means.

Jews, pagans, and heretics were not the only groups to suffer collateral damage from the Crusades. Eastern Orthodox Christians also harbour bitter memories, particularly of the Fourth Crusade, which was diverted from the reconquest of Jerusalem and instead sacked Constantinople in 1204. The Byzantine empire, already in decline, then disintegrated, paving the way for its permanent Islamisation and enabling the Ottoman Turks to invade Europe in the 16th century.

The main contemporary charge against the Crusades, however, is that they did irreparable and lasting damage to relations between Muslims and Christians — even that they ‘explain’ the present conflict between Islam and the West. Tens of thousands of Muslims were killed by the crusaders in the establishment of their states, and over the next two centuries there were crusader incursions throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, from Egypt to Mesopotamia.

For the Muslim world, the loss of Jerusalem, largely ignored at the time, came to be seen in retrospect as a traumatic (if also cathartic) experience. Though other invasions, such as those of the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries, were far more destructive of Islamic civilisation, the Crusades remain more deeply lodged in Muslim collective memory. This is, no doubt, because they have been incorporated into a narrative that provides a rationale for the growing disparity in wealth and power between Islam and the West since the 17th century.

But what have Western historians had to say about the Crusades? In modern times, little good: the dominant narrative derives from the Enlightenment critique, itself a byproduct of the assault on religion in general and on the Catholic Church in particular. Thus, to Edward Gibbon, whose witty and vitriolic account still influences modern historians, the only merit of the Crusades was that they weakened the grip of European feudalism.

Some of the most influential modern historians of the Crusades have also interpreted them through the prism of later European history. A salient example is the late Sir Steven Runciman, whose elegant, three-volume History of the Crusades appeared during the 1950s, a period of decolonisation in the Middle East as elsewhere.

Runciman empathised with the sophistication of Byzantine civilisation, which he blamed the Latins for undermining, and he shared the post-imperial pessimism of the British upper class. He had spent World War II in Istanbul as a professor of Byzantine art, and decided to write about the Crusades, a subject he detested, in order to re-educate the British. When he declared that "seen in the perspective of history the whole crusading movement was a fiasco," he was reflecting the zeitgeist of the Suez campaign.

A different but no less negative case was that of Carl Erdmann, the brilliant German author of The Origin of the Idea of the Crusade. This classic work, which appeared in 1935, was a coded attack on Nazi Germany, and was understood as such by the intended targets: Erdmann found himself excluded from the German universities, was sent to the Eastern front, and died there.

Erdmann argued that, in proclaiming the First Crusade, Pope Urban II was less interested in restoring the rights of Christians to make pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulchre than in unleashing "an ecclesiastical-knightly war upon heathens" in collaboration with Emperor Henry IV. For Erdmann, this unholy alliance of pope and Caesar not only signified a betrayal of the gospels but was a portent of Hitler’s war of racial extermination. His thesis has certainly impressed later generations; but as Hans Eberhard Mayer, an equally eminent German historian, has pointed out, that does not make it true. Mayer has shown that the march to Jerusalem was intended from the beginning to be a pilgrimage, albeit an armed one, and that this was how Urban II originally conceived it. It was only en route that "the conceptual change from armed pilgrim to soldier for the faith took place."

In any case, the hostile narrative of the Crusades bequeathed by historians from Gibbon to Runciman took deep root in the Western imagination, and has found a powerful echo in popular culture. Of course, the adventures of the crusaders themselves have been the stuff of literature from the troubador Blondel’s search for the imprisoned Richard the Lionheart to Torquato Tasso’s verse epic Gerusalemme Liberata to the romances of Walter Scott and beyond. Today, however, the historical reality of the Crusades has been appropriated by those whose quite specific aim is to discredit the war against Islamist terrorism.

One of these is Ridley Scott. In Kingdom of Heaven, the hero Balian of Ibelin (played by Orlando Bloom, rather out of his depth) is a French blacksmith who, by a series of ever more miraculous coincidences, becomes a great crusader lord. (The real Balian was an Italian nobleman born in the Holy Land.) Arriving in Outremer, he discovers on a hill in the middle of Jerusalem, supposed to be Calvary, that he has lost his faith. But in this "New World," he also finds himself at home among a liberal brotherhood of freethinkers who ignore their bigoted anti-Muslim bishop and instead keep the peace with Saladin. Balian is shown colonising this Wild East frontier, digging a well and sharing his water with the Saracens. For this, he is rewarded with the love of the fair Queen Sibylla, sister of King Baldwin IV and wife of King Guy de Lusignan. (In reality, she was happily married and had a child, the future Baldwin V.)

Then there is Saladin himself, the great Kurdish sultan and conqueror of Jerusalem who reunited a Muslim world long divided between rival caliphates, brilliantly and sympathetically portrayed in the movie by the Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud. Ridley Scott here draws on a long tradition, including Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s drama Nathan the Wise and Walter Scott’s The Talisman, in which Saladin was depicted not only as a model of chivalry (as medieval poets and chroniclers had already done) but as a pioneer of religious toleration. The difference is that whereas such literary classics did not pretend to portray the historical Saladin, the makers of Kingdom of Heaven claim that "authenticity coloured every facet of the production."

Needless to say, there is no evidence to support the film’s view of Saladin. Indeed, for Islamists today who dream of Islam’s ultimate victory over the Jews and Christians, Saladin is the very model of a warrior, not a prototype UN Secretary General. But the movie insists otherwise, contrasting its idealised image of Saladin with the crusaders, most of whom are bloodthirsty, drunken, scheming, venal, treacherous, and above all, fanatical.

If works like Kingdom of Heaven transform the Crusades into a medieval allegory of today’s global confrontation with radical Islam — a very Western allegory that repeats every anti-Western cliché — it is at least heartening to report that in recent years a new school of historians has emerged, free of the resentments and prejudices of previous generations. Outstanding among them are Thomas Asbridge, who has already been quoted, and Jonathan Phillips, the author of The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (2004).

Their accounts have justly won a wide readership. Both works are dispassionate in tone, drawing on a wider range of sources than earlier and more partisan historians, and above all, paying proper attention to the primarily spiritual forces that propelled these expeditions. Both were published after September 11, 2001; while they are solicitous of Muslim and Greek Orthodox sensibilities, neither finds it necessary to condemn or apologise for the Crusades.

Nor should they. No doubt, as both historians stipulate, the pursuit of land and plunder motivated many crusaders. But materialism, while it looms very large in the conventional narrative of the Crusades, was only a secondary factor; most crusaders sacrificed far more wealth than they gained. According to Asbridge, it cost the equivalent of five times a knight’s annual income to pay for his passage and that of his entourage to Jerusalem.

Moreover, spiritual and material motives did not necessarily stand in mutual contradiction. When the crusaders besieged and took the great city of Antioch, and established a principality there on their way to Jerusalem, they believed they were merely restoring the oldest of the patriarchal sees, the site of Peter’s first church, to Christendom. In contrast to the long-standing cliché about the crusaders’ greed and avarice, or about the predominance among them of land-hungry younger sons, Asbridge argues convincingly that chivalry and religiosity outweighed the hope of material rewards. Of those who returned from the First Crusade, "none came home laden down with riches."

The Pope also wanted to harness and channel the violence of the new feudal military class: "Let those who in the past have been accustomed to spread private war so vilely among the faithful advance against the infidels." Modern armies similarly absorb many who would otherwise populate the prisons. But to judge from their own chronicles, the crusaders were hardly ignoble in character, or incapable of impartiality. Archbishop William of Tyre’s A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, Geoffrey de Villehardouin’s account of the Fourth Crusade, and Jean de Joinville’s Life of St. Louis are examples of first-hand accounts by important dramatis personae that are invaluable to historians and that still read well today.

The Crusades played a major role in the evolution of military strategy, technology, and architecture. Nor is it true that the numbers of crusaders who settled in Outremer were sufficiently large as to invoke the concept of mass colonisation. Perhaps half a million Europeans participated in the seven Crusades over two centuries, during which time the population of Europe increased by almost 50 percent, from 48 million in 1100 to 69 million in 1250. Battles and sieges during the Crusades did tend to be bloodier than back home in Europe. Even so, the human cost of these relatively brief campaigns, punctuated by long periods of peace, must have been negligible when compared with, for example, the annihilation of Baghdad by Hulagu’s Mongol horde in 1258, which wiped out a city of half a million and ended the Abbasid Caliphate, or even when compared with the sack of Jerusalem in 1244 by Turkomans fleeing from the Mongols.

The Crusades marked the moment when the West achieved political, economic, aesthetic, and intellectual take-off. Within decades, Europe had given birth to the rule of law and the modern state, free trade and Magna Carta, the Gothic cathedral and the scholastic university, Aquinas and Dante, a new spirituality and an early renaissance. Individualism, rationalism, empiricism and mysticism all owe a debt to the revolution unleashed by the Crusades. In economic terms alone, the existence of Outremer brought prosperity to Palestine and Syria such as they had not seen since Roman times — prosperity not only for Christians but for Jews and also for Muslims, as the later decline of these provinces under Turkish rule would sadly demonstrate.

These and other considerations must go into the writing of fair-minded histories of the Crusades, giving due weight to the spiritual energies that made them possible, to the brutality they visited upon Jews and others, and to their consequences, beneficial and otherwise. But it is no less essential to place them within their larger historical context. In that larger perspective, they take their place as a short-lived counter-offensive against another, much lengthier, and much more relentless holy war — namely, the Muslim jihad against Christendom. For the fact is that the Crusades were a temporary phenomenon that flourished for some two centuries and had quite limited purposes, whereas jihad is and has been a permanent and ubiquitous fact of Islamic life.

Jihad evolved into a doctrine of Islamic jurisprudence as a byproduct of the great Arab expansion after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, thus predating the First Crusade by more than four centuries. Muslim scholars were well aware of the uniqueness of this institution. Ibn Khaldun, the greatest of all Islamic historians and a key witness from the period just after the Crusades, compares Islam with Christianity and Judaism in this respect:

In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or force . . . The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty to them, save only for purposes of defence.

Many western scholars have utterly failed to grasp the significance of this distinction. They are convinced that Islam was "tolerant, religiously quasi-indifferent," as the pre-eminent French historian Fernand Braudel declared, whereas Christianity was "brutal, violent, relentless, often under the sign of absolute intolerance." In point of fact, Muslim rulers varied greatly in their treatment of their Christian and Jewish subjects, who were permitted to exist under Islamic law only in the inferior legal status of dhimmi, suffering numerous penalties and often falling victim to persecutions that were no less brutal, violent, and relentless than those of Christian Europe. In the meantime, the larger Islamic jihad against Christendom went on unabated.

The spectacular Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries had brought under the Crescent the Greco-Roman heartlands of Christianity along the southern coast of the Mediterranean, with many incursions northward as well. Some territory was eventually recovered from the Saracens between the 10th and 12th centuries, including much of Spain, southern France, Italy, Sicily, and Cyprus. But Roman Africa and the Hellenic Levant were lost forever, while the Byzantines lost Anatolia to the Turks after their decisive defeat at Manzikert in 1071.

So the Crusades took place against a background of Muslim conquest, of which the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem were deliberately triumphal symbols. Compared with the three phases of jihad against Christendom — Arab, Tartar, and Turkish — lasting over a millennium and stretching across three continents, the seven Frankish expeditions to Palestine can be seen in proportion: a "limited and belated response," as Bernard Lewis puts it, a brief if important interlude in the long history of jihad. In this context, it is not surprising that at the time, as Lewis reminds us, the Muslims "knew little and cared less" about the crusaders. The turning point in relations between Islam and the West came only much later, at the end of the 17th century, when the long Turkish retreat, beginning with the siege of Vienna, finally forced the Ottoman Sultans to come to terms.

The Crusades were also a belated response to specific humiliations, stretching back over centuries. These included the partial destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Caliph Hakim in 1009. The sermon preached by Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095, which electrified Latin Christendom, justified its call to arms against the Saracens by atrocities against Christian pilgrims that were largely specious. But Christians in general had cause to feel threatened: Saracen pirates had pillaged Rome itself in 845, and their base in Sicily had only been recaptured four years before the First Crusade. Likewise, the Fourth Crusade turned on the Greeks, who in the Third Crusade had allied themselves with Saladin, as an explosion of vengeance by Venetians and other Latins. The sack of Constantinople cannot be justified, but it was not unprovoked.

Did the Crusades nevertheless poison relations between Islam and the West? It is true that Urban dehumanised Muslims as "a race utterly alien to God." But what proved more significant in the long term was that the Crusades, having established trading and pilgrim routes to Outremer, obliged the Franks to acquaint themselves with Islamic culture, just as the Normans did in Saracen Sicily and the Spanish and Portuguese in Moorish Iberia. Emperor Frederick II, whose native milieu had been marked by the Muslim presence, incurred the displeasure of the pious by cultivating Arab architecture, science, and philosophy. When in 1228 he finally obeyed the papal command to recover Jerusalem, he succeeded in doing so by negotiation, without a drop of blood being spilled. In the Middle East, co-existence between crusader and Saracen remained possible at least until the external threat of Mongol conquest radicalised Islam and brought about the rise of the Mameluke Turks, who systematically exterminated the Templars and Hospitalers on whom Outremer depended.

This legacy was not lost when the crusader states were snuffed out. The literature of medieval Europe acknowledges Muslim heroes like Saladin, and thinkers like Averroes and Avicenna, on equal terms with Christians; for Dante, Saracens, too, belong to the humana civilitas. In the great humanist Nicholas of Cusa, undoubtedly influenced by the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, we encounter an attempt to interpret the Koran as a sacred text worthy of serious consideration. In later centuries, the intense and ongoing interest of Westerners in Islamic culture and religion is too well known to need repeating.

Ever since al-Qaeda declared war on the West, the Crusades have been forced back into our consciousness as part of a longer historical narrative weighted heavily in favour of Islam. The radical Islamist invocation of the Crusades serves two purposes: to rally Muslims to the cause of jihad against Judeo-Christian civilisation, and to undermine the legitimacy of resistance to it. Islamists know exactly how to exploit post-imperial, post-Christian guilt — the West’s Achilles heel. By placing the Crusades at the heart of the relationship between Islam and the West, they intend their war of terror to be seen by both sides as a justifiable response to Western aggression. In this they have not been disappointed, as we can witness all around us.

According to Islamist historiography, for example, the modern state of Israel is merely a reincarnation of the medieval Kingdom of Jerusalem, and Zionism the modern manifestation of the same imperialistic impulse as that which drove the Crusades. The fact that it took a divided Islam two centuries to defeat and expel the crusaders from the Levant provides a pattern for the present situation. True, Western "imperialism" has established itself not only in Israel but, most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Islamists are enjoined by the example of their forebears who fought the crusaders to be patient and cunning, to unite against the common foe, and to be utterly ruthless.

When Westerners today condemn the Crusades, they send a coded message both to Israel and to the Muslim world. The message says that just as these Westerners, and especially the Christians among them, are not ready to defend their own ancestors, they are also unprepared to lift a finger to defend the Jewish state, and less likely to defend the invasion and occupation of Iraq. European Christians are indeed more likely to be found siding with Muslims, whether Palestinians or Iraqis, than with Sharon or Bush. As are European elites in general, not to speak of many American academics, intellectuals, and spokespeople for "mainline" churches. The reasons in all cases are various, but one large cluster of them, if traced back far enough, is connected with a false, partisan, and self-hating interpretation of the Crusades.

An obscure branch of medieval history may not sound like promising or even especially important territory for public debate. But unless and until the Crusades are reclaimed by scholarship, and interpreted objectively for popular consumption, there is a real danger that the al-Qaeda school of historiography (as we may call it) will triumph. In the reflexively anti-Israel and anti-American attitudes of many Europeans, in mindless celebrations of a movie like Kingdom of Heaven, it already has.

The Crusades are an organic part of Western history. They are also a casus belli, and will remain so for as long as it suits the Islamists. On the cultural front of that war, one side has gone disastrously far in the direction of unilateral disarmament.

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