THOMAS F. MADDEN
What is the real story of the Crusades? As you might imagine, it is a long story. But there are good histories, written in the last twenty years, that lay much of it out. For the moment, given the barrage of coverage that the Crusades are getting nowadays, it might be best to consider just what the Crusades were not. Here, then, are some of the most common myths and why they are wrong.
The Crusades are much in the news of late. President Bush made the mistake of referring to the war against terrorism as a “crusade” and was roundly criticized for uttering a word both offensive and hurtful to the world’s Muslims. If it is painful, then it is remarkable indeed how often the Arabs themselves make use of the word. Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar have repeatedly referred to Americans as “crusaders” and the present war as a “crusade against Islam.” For decades now Americans have been routinely referred to as “crusaders” or “cowboys” among Arabs in the
They are not forgotten in the West either. Actually, despite the many differences between the East and West, most people in both cultures are in agreement about the Crusades. It is commonly accepted that the Crusades are a black mark on the history of Western civilization generally and the Catholic Church in particular. Anyone eager to bash Catholics will not long tarry before brandishing the Crusades and the Inquisition. The Crusades are often used as a classic example of the evil that organized religion can do. Your average man on the street in both
It was not always so. During the Middle Ages you could not find a Christian in
It was in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that the current view of the Crusades was born. Most of thephilosophes, like Voltaire, believed that medieval Christianity was a vile superstition. For them the Crusades were a migration of barbarians led by fanaticism, greed, and lust. Since then, the Enlightenment take on the Crusades has gone in and out of fashion. The Crusades received good press as wars of nobility (although not religion) during the Romantic period and the early twentieth century. After the Second World War, however, opinion again turned decisively against the Crusades. In the wake of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, historians found war of ideology — any ideology — distasteful. This sentiment was summed up by Sir Steven Runciman in his three-volume work, A History of the Crusades (1951-54). For Runciman, the Crusades were morally repugnant acts of intolerance in the name of God. The medieval men who took the cross and marched to the
Since the 1970s the Crusades have attracted many hundreds of scholars who have meticulously poked, prodded, and examined them. As a result, much more is known about Christianity’s holy wars than ever before. Yet the fruits of decades of scholarship have been slow to enter the popular mind. In part this is the fault of professional historians, who tend to publish studies that, by necessity, are technical and therefore not easily accessible outside of the academy. But it is also due to a clear reluctance among modern elites to let go of Runciman’s vision of the Crusades. And so modern popular books on the Crusades — desiring, after all, to be popular — tend to parrot Runciman. The same is true for other media, like the multi-part television documentary, The Crusades (1995), produced by BBC/A&E and starring Terry Jones of Monty Pythonfame. To give the latter an air of authority the producers spliced in a number of distinguished Crusade historians who gave their views on events. The problem was that the historians would not go along with Runciman’s ideas. No matter. The producers simply edited the taped interviews cleverly enough that the historians seemed to be agreeing with Runciman. As Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith quite vehemently told me, “They made me appear to say things that I do not believe!”
So, what is the real story of the Crusades? As you might imagine, it is a long story. But there are good histories, written in the last twenty years, that lay much of it out. For the moment, given the barrage of coverage that the Crusades are getting nowadays, it might be best to consider just what the Crusades were not. Here, then, are some of the most common myths and why they are wrong.
Myth 1: The Crusades were wars of unprovoked aggression against a peaceful Muslim world.
This is as wrong as wrong can be. From the time of Mohammed, Muslims had sought to conquer the Christian world. They did a pretty good job of it, too. After a few centuries of steady conquests, Muslim armies had taken all of North Africa, the Middle East, Asia Minor, and most of
Myth 2: The Crusaders wore crosses, but they were really only interested in capturing booty and land. Their pious platitudes were just a cover for rapacious greed.
Historians used to believe that a rise in
Myth 3: When the Crusaders captured
This is a favorite used to demonstrate the evil nature of the Crusades. Most recently, Bill Clinton in a speech at
Myth 4: The Crusades were just medieval colonialism dressed up in religious finery.
It is important to remember that in the Middle Ages the West was not a powerful, dominant culture venturing into a primitive or backward region. It was the Muslim East that was powerful, wealthy, and opulent.
Myth 5: The Crusades were also waged against the Jews.
No pope ever called a Crusade against Jews. During the First Crusade a large band of riffraff, not associated with the main army, descended on the towns of the
Myth 6: The Crusades were so corrupt and vile that they even had a Children’s Crusade.
The so-called “Children’s Crusade” of 1212 was neither a Crusade nor an army of children. It was a particularly large eruption of popular religious enthusiasm in
Myth 7: Pope John Paul II apologized for the Crusades.
This is an odd myth, given that the pope was so roundly criticized for failing to apologize directly for the Crusades when he asked forgiveness from all those that Christians had unjustly harmed. It is true that John Paul recently apologized to the Greeks for the Fourth Crusade’s sack of
Myth 8: Muslims, who remember the Crusades vividly, have good reason to hate the West.
Actually, the Muslim world remembers the Crusades about as well as the West — in other words, incorrectly. That should not be surprising. Muslims get their information about the Crusades from the same rotten histories that the West relies on. The Muslim world used to celebrate the Crusades as a great victory for them. They did, after all, win. But western authors, fretting about the legacy of modern imperialism, have recast the Crusades as wars of aggression and the Muslims as placid sufferers. In so doing they have rescinded centuries of Muslim triumphs, offering in their stead only the consolation of victimhood.
Thomas F. Madden. "Crusade Myths." Catholic Dossier 8 no. 1 (January-February 2002).
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Thomas F. Madden is associate professor and chair of the Department of History at