If you’ve ever tried to have an intellectual debate about Islam, chances are the Crusades are brought up. Many still believe that the Crusades were a series of self-righteous holy wars perpetrated against innocent Muslims.
Too often the Crusades are blamed as the cause of the turn of Islam, when Muslim extremism was born to combat religious intolerance.
But what were the Crusades really and why would so many, Christian or Catholic, go along with such drastic measures?
Thomas F. Madden, medieval historian and expert on the Crusades, believes that the world could use a refresher course, starting with the undeniable facts:
Misconceptions about the Crusades are all too common. The Crusades are generally portrayed as a series of holy wars against Islam led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics. They are supposed to have been the epitome of self-righteousness and intolerance, a black stain on the history of the Catholic Church in particular and Western civilization in general. A breed of proto-imperialists, the Crusaders introduced Western aggression to the peaceful Middle East and then deformed the enlightened Muslim culture, leaving it in ruins.
Christians in the eleventh century were not paranoid fanatics. Muslims really were gunning for them. When Mohammed was waging war against Mecca in the seventh century, Christianity was the dominant religion of power and wealth. 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.
Muslims had already conquered all of North Africa and Spain by the eighth century, and in the eleventh century, Asia Minor was overtaken as well. Christian culture was being dissolved, and Christians were forced to leave behind their faith and convert or die. At this point, the emperor in Constantinople called for help from fellow Christians in western Europe, thus, giving birth to the Crusades.
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.
The warriors of the Crusades are often thought of as ruthless vagabonds, but research shows that this is untrue:
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 were keenly aware of their sinfulness and eager to undertake the hardships of the Crusade as a penitential act of charity and love. A few people got rich, but the vast majority returned with nothing.
Pope Urban II had two goals for the Crusades: to rescue Christians of the East, and to liberate Jerusalem. Many Christians were enslaved and tortured in prisons after their lands were ransacked by Muslims.
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. 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.
As in all wars, religious or political, there were mishaps and crimes, but plundering and senseless slaughter of civilians were a rarity. Still, these condemnable war crimes seem to be the only part of the Crusades that people remember. However, these acts were strongly condemned and punished by the Church.
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.
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.
The Crusades of the 13th century were larger, better funded, and better organized. But they too failed. 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 end of the 13 century’s Crusades were somewhat more successful, but soon Muslim leaders waged a brutal jihad against Christians. By 1291, they succeeded in wiping out the last of the Crusaders, erasing the Crusader kingdom from the map. Christian forces were never able to regain a foothold in the region until the 19th century.
Without the Crusades, the world would look much different today. Christianity, as well as Judaism, would probably have been erased, along with religious liberty. Western culture would cease to exist, along with freedom from slavery and modern-day women’s rights.