Historicity & Holy War: Putting the Crusades in Context

Appearing in everything from classic poetry to modern film, the image of peasants and kings taking up the sword to fight for their religion has become a defining image of the Middle ages. Saladin and Richard the Lionheart are among the most famous names in history. In recent years, however, the Crusades have acquired a startling immediacy because of comparisons to renewed conflicts between Western and Middle Eastern powers in which religious tension has been exploited to further political and military agendas. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, writes in his book God is Not Great that “the jihadist assault reconjured the blood-stained spectre of the Crusaders.”1 The Crusades have reentered the modern consciousness as a sort of historical fable, a paradigm of Western imperialist aggression and ethno-religious persecution.

Portrayed alongside other choice incidents such as the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades are used by some to malign Christianity as inherently violent, aggressive, intolerant, and corrupt. Historian Steven Runciman describes the Crusades as “nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God.”2 Bringing up the Crusades as the quintessential Christian atrocity (or series of atrocities) carries with it the implication that their alleged evils were a natural by-product of a Christian society. Just as Stalin’s gulags or Hitler’s gas chambers are seen as clear evidence for the corruption of their underlying ideologies, these medieval holy wars are seen as the brutal and natural byproduct of a devoutly religious society. Because of the prevalence of this understanding of the Crusades, it is important that both Christians and non-Christians understand the historical context of the Crusades in order to distinguish fact from the hyperbole and pure fiction that accompanies many interpretations of these events.

In the present day, one of the most common viewpoints on the Crusades is that they were simply wars of aggression provoked by either simple intolerance or the desire of the Christian Church to use its spiritual authority for short-sighted material ends. This attitude sadly remains prominent in no small part due to the proliferation of outdated—or simply poor—scholarship. James Reston, Jr.’s popular history work Warriors of God depressingly encapsulates this common view when his foreword refers to the crusading period as a “frenzy of hate and violence unprecedented before the advent of the technological age and the scourge of Hitler.”3 Christopher Tyerman, author of God’s War, refers to the “mixture of demotic religious propaganda and material greed” that “combined to create an obscene cocktail of butchery and bigotry.”4 Both of these views are inadequate and incomplete interpretations of complex historical events.

When analyzing any historical event, and particularly one so fraught with misinterpretation and exaggeration, it is crucial to look at both its context and its causes. The Crusades did not spontaneously appear from a historical vacuum. The people of Europe did not leave their homes and march thousands of miles to wage war for no reason, and it is important to understand their own motivations and justifications before passing judgment on the events of the Crusades. In broad historical terms, the Crusades came in the wake of four centuries of Christian retreat all across the known world. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Muslim armies had poured out of Arabia in great numbers, capturing the Holy Land, Mesopotamia, northern Africa, and even Spain. Of the Christian world’s five patriarchates, or cities of major religious importance, three were captured (Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem), and for the next four centuries, Christendom remained on the defensive. France was attacked by Muslim armies, Sicily was conquered, and even Constantinople, the most important city in Christendom, was repeatedly besieged. By the eleventh century the Christian world had regained its footing, but the fear that Christendom was in a constant battle for its own existence remained a powerful force in the European psyche, and this attitude was directly linked with the beginning of the Crusades.

More immediately, the First Crusade was triggered by the weakening of the eastern Byzantine Empire. For centuries, the Empire was the eastern bulwark of Christianity, surviving numerous invasions and occasionally reasserting Christian control over important cities such as the patriarchate of Antioch. By the late eleventh century, however, the arrival of the Seljuk Turks from the Asian steppes had them tottering on the brink of collapse. In 1071 at the Battle of Manzikert, the Byzantine Empire suffered a devastating defeat to the Turks, and over the next few years the Empire lost most of its land in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). As the Turks continued to advance, cities of great historical importance to Christianity such as Nicaea and Antioch fell out of Christian hands.

By 1095, the Turks were strong enough that the Byzantine emperor, Alexios I Komnenos, was compelled to write to Pope Urban II in Rome requesting military assistance. Although the Eastern Orthodox Church of the Byzantines had been in schism with the Roman Church since 1054, the two churches were not complete enemies and still considered each other allies when it came to resisting further Islamic advances. This request for help motivated Pope Urban II to call for the first Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095. Urban called upon the knights of Europe to join together to take back the city of Jerusalem. While the sense that Christendom was under siege was likely the greatest concern in Urban’s mind, he was also motivated by a desire to halt attacks on Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, which were believed to be increasing. The general circumstances of the First Crusade show that it was not conceived as an aggressive move, but rather as a defensive one, meant to protect the Christian world from what appeared to be an existential threat.

Given the Christian ideals of seeking peace and loving one’s enemies, contrasted with the ubiquity of warfare in human existence, it is unsurprising that Christian thinkers have thought deeply on the circumstances under which a Christian nation or individual may be permitted to take up arms. Indeed, some of the Church’s most important figures have attempted to formulate methods to determine which wars are just and which are not. St. Augustine, who lived in the fourth century A.D., was among the first Christian thinkers to write on how a just war could be defined. In his most famous work, The City of God, Augustine wrote,

The wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars. For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man’s wrong-doing.5

Augustine’s work was continued by St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote at the height of the Crusading era. Aquinas asserts in his Summa Theologica that three requirements must be met in order for a war to be considered just: First, a war must be waged by a lawful sovereign. Sovereign rulers bear the duty of protecting their people from harm and injustice, and therefore only they may undertake the action of declaring and waging war. Second, a war must have a just cause. Examples of just causes would be protecting one’s people from the invasion and harm of another state, or intervening to halt some other grave injustice. While a few medieval writers argued that wars of conversion were just, the greater weight of religious scholarship rejected this.6 Finally, a war must be waged with right intention. Aquinas quotes Augustine in saying that, “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.”7

Whether or not the Crusades themselves had a just result, the question of whether they could be seen as just wars when they occurred is worthy of examination. When carried out by feudal lords and authorized by the Pope, they certainly fulfilled the sovereignty condition for a just war. In the mind of Pope Urban, the second condition was fulfilled by the danger presented to Christendom by the aggression of the Turks, as well as the belief that Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land were being attacked. Pope Urban urged his listeners that, “Your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them.”8 The third condition laid out by St. Aquinas obviously must have varied in its fulfillment in the heart of each crusader. No doubt some of the leaders and soldiers who embarked on the crusades perceived the potential for temporal gain even in an enterprise as arduous as crusading. However, most evidence suggests that a great many crusaders, even those in the nobility, were motivated by a true conviction that what they did was right. Knights embarking on a crusade were required to settle their debts, and many had to sell a great deal of land just to finance their journey to the Holy Land. Primary documents reveal that almost all planned to return from the Holy Land after their “pilgrimage,” meaning that for most there was no prospect of winning new lands abroad.

Not all Christian thinkers in Europe, however, were convinced that the Crusades were pursued in such a way as to justify their continuance. Notable as contrarian voices during the Crusades are Peter the Venerable and Roger Bacon. Peter, abbot of an important monastery in Cluny, France, was troubled by the total lack of knowledge most in the Christian world had of Islam and organized the first ever Latin translation of the Quran. Bacon was a contemporary critic of the crusading enterprise, arguing that it hurt the salvation of souls because “those who survive, together with their children, are more and more embittered against the Christian faith.” Their dissent is important for balancing our understanding of Christianity at that time. Clearly, both faith and reason played a role in determining individuals’ and leaders’ responses to aggression and their attitudes toward violence. There was no univocal endorsement of violence.

Overall, with a sensitive subject like the Crusades it is exceptionally important that one avoid hyperbole and instead view things from a distant, rational perspective. Before analyzing or making a moral judgment of the past, it is crucial that one has a firm grasp of known facts and be willing to take context into account. Was crusading a net positive for the world or even for Christianity? Likely not. Was it the source of much suffering and outright evil? Beyond all doubt. But do the historical events fit the narrative of Christian aggression motivated by intolerance? No. Much can be learned from the Crusades if one takes an honest and open approach, rather than making assumptions about the beliefs and motivations of historical people. The fact that Pope Urban’s initial orders and intentions led to the tragic violence of the Crusades illustrates the immense problem of unintended consequences in any endeavor, and the great deal of suffering they caused provides a compelling reason for why modern Christians should always attempt to be peacemakers.

1Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great (New York: Twelve Books, 2007).
2Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades: Volume III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951) 480.

3James Reston Jr., Warriors of God (New York: Doubleday, 2001) xiii.

4Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades (New York: Penguin, 2006) 104- 105.

5 Augustine, “The City of God,” New Advent.

6Jonathan Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977) 20.

7Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: Volume III (New York: Cosimo, 1912), 1354.

8 Pope Urban II, “Speech at the Council of Clermont,” Medieval Sourcebook http://www. fordham.edu/halsall/source/urban2-5vers.html

Blake Neff ’13 is from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He is a History major at Dartmouth.

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