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Understanding the Crusades
Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.
Modern history’s judgment on the Crusades has been severe and myopic, set as it is on portraying this glorious episode of Christian history as morally evil. When I praise the Middle Ages, I sometimes have young Catholics defiantly respond, “All right, all right. But how do you justify the Crusades?” Indoctrinated by revisionist history books and inter-religious study courses, they have accepted the false verdict that the Crusades were nothing more than a condemnable act of intolerance in the name of God.
Further, many of these youth have been adversely influenced by innumerable apologies for the Crusades from so many high-placed Catholic Prelates, religious, and educators of the post-Vatican II progressivist Church. Let me give only a few examples:
During a visit to Syria this year (2001), Pope John Paul II himself visited a mosque and asked forgiveness of the Muslims “for Christian offenses and violence of the past” (1).
On July 15, 1999, the 900th anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders, a party of Christians, claiming to be acting in the name of Christ and as supposed descendents of Crusaders, paraded round the wall of the Old City to publicize a personal apology to Muslims for the Crusades (2).
This small incident says a lot: A new Catholic high school in San Juan Capistrano (CA) chose the team name Crusaders, only to have the name vetoed by the board because “it would be offensive to Muslims, who were targets of the bloody crusades of the Middle Ages “ (3).
1. Unease exists within the Church itself over the constant apologies of the Pope for the Church. In its article on the papal apology, The Christian Science Monitor reports, “Commentator Vittorio Messori wrote in yesterday’s prestigious Corriere della Sera daily, that there is a part of the Roman Curia that says, ‘John Paul II is distorting the past of the Church, is risking exposing it to humiliations, is paying his respects to its persecutors, is interpreting ecumenism as syncretism, in which one religion seems to be good as any other.” Richard L. Wentworth, “Pope on a mission of contrition,” The Christian Science Monitor, May 8, 2001.
To accept blame when one is at fault is, or course, good. But in the above cases, the apologizers and reconciliators only show that they have misinterpreted history.
2. “An Apology, 900 years in the making,” Christianity Today, September 6, 1999.
3. “Crusaders Lose before Joining Battle,” Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2001, B6.
First, they do not understand what motivated the West to a just war: The Crusades were waged to recover the Holy Sepulchre, which had become the target of constant profanation by the Muslims, for the defense of Christian pilgrims, and for the recovery of Christian territory. They constituted a defensive reaction against the Islamic threat.
Second, they do not understand the aggressive nature and fanaticism of Islam (founded by Mohammed, who lived from about 570 to 632 AD), which had been in conflict with Christianity since the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, and had as its goal the imposition of its religion and Mohammedan law on all Europe.
The anger, frustration and fear roused in all Americans at the September 11 attack on the East Coast provide an opportunity to make the Crusades more comprehensible. There are surprising parallels between the two events. Both then and now, there were:
May 6, 2001 - In the mosque in Damascus John Paul II greets the grand mufti and asks forgiveness for the past
1. The peril of losing valuable religious principles, such as freedom of worship;
Those who rant and rave against the Crusades may soon find the ground shifting beneath them as they share in a new consensus, which, at base, is not so different from that which supported the medieval religious war they are condemning. Today’s call for a war on moral grounds is not so different from that of the Pope who called on Christians throughout Europe to come to the defense of Christendom “out of love of God and their neighbor” (4).
2. A perceived physical threat to fellow countrymen;
3. The injury experienced at losing a landmark site;
4. The sense that what is at stake is nothing less than the survival of Western civilization.
4. Jonathan Riley-Smith, What were the Crusades? (London, 1977), pp. 13-14.
A threat to fellow Christians
Since the third century, a favorite site of pilgrimage for Christians was the Holy Land. When Islam burst out of Arabia and took control of the Middle East in the seventh century, pilgrimages to the Holy Land became more difficult, but never ceased.
But the great age of pilgrimage began with the 10th century. In Palestine, the most beloved site of pilgrimage, the lot of the Christians was no longer so bad, and men and women of every class and age, sometimes travelling in parties numbering thousands, journeyed by sea or the land route to visit “the Sepulchre of the Lord which is in Jerusalem.” The Fatimid Arabs who were governing Palestine were lenient, trade was prospering, and pilgrims were welcomed for the wealth they brought to the province.
This period of relative peace came to an abrupt halt at the end of the 10th century. The Arabs were displaced as governors of the holy places by the Seljuk Turks, who reinvigorated the dwindling military spirit of Islam, and again made the call for jihad, or holy war. Their aim was the same as it has been since the inception of Islam, which does not mean “peace,” despite the strange and insistent claims of this seen in the newspapers today.
In fact, the word Islam means submission, and not just a passive submission to the book of Islam, the Koran. Submission for the followers of Mohammed means to carry out the will of Allah in history. The Muslim doctrine of the jihad, or holy war, stemmed from the ideas of the prophet himself—that is, that it was Allah’s will for a permanent war to reign until the rule of Islam extended over all the world. Hence Islam’s political domination could be, and was, spread by the sword. This is why Hillaire Belloc predicted almost a century ago that the West could again see a threat from Islam:
“It very nearly destroyed us. It kept up the battle against Christendom actively for a thousand years, and the story is by no means over; the power of Islam may at any moment re-arise” (5).
5. Hillaire Belloc, The Great Heresies, Chapter Four
But, back to the history. By the second half of the 11th century, the Turks had brandished the sword and were creating considerable hardships for Western pilgrims in the East. Travel was no longer safe for Christian pilgrims without an armed escort, and even then, Christians who managed to return to the West had dreadful tales of persecution to tell.
When the call for a Crusade was finally made by Blessed Pope Urban II at Clermont in 1095, he stressed the outrages suffered by fellow Christians at the hands of the militant Muslims:
“They [the Muslim Turks] have invaded the lands of those Christians and have depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; they have led away a part of the captives into their own country, and a part they have destroyed by cruel tortures .… They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent .… On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you?” (6)
Such descriptions raised the indignation of the multitudes and inspired an inevitable response. The general view was that the Crusade was justified as a defensive reaction to injuries sustained by the faithful in consequence of past or present aggressions. The Crusaders were protecting the right and possibility of pilgrims to go to the Holy Land.
6. Dana C. Munro, “Urban and the Crusaders”, Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, Vol. 1:2, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1895), 5-8
The positive religious factor: Feelings about Jerusalem
A principal goal of the Crusade in the minds of the people was the liberation of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was more than a symbolic military or economic institution, like the Pentagon or the World Trade Center. Jerusalem was a living relic of Christendom, the site on earth where God chose to intervene in History to become incarnate and to redeem man. “Those places where the Lord’s feet have trod,” wrote James of Vitry, “are held by the faithful to be holy and consecrated and as precious relics” (7). Here, near Nablus was the well where He had rested and received the pitcher of water from the Samaritan woman. There, at the River Jordan, Christ had been baptized. At Bethlehem was the sacred site of His Birth. Now these sites were being desecrated and reviled, the churches and sacred vessels pillaged and plundered. For medieval man, to defend Jerusalem from such acts of profanation was the natural consequence of his great love of God.
When Pope Urban II preached the Crusade at Clermont, he described the desecration by the Muslims of the Holy Land, and especially the Holy Sepulchre:
Pope Urban II called for a Crusade at Clermont in 1095 and gave a plenary indulgence to the fighters
“Let the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord our Savior, which is possessed by unclean nations, especially incite you, and the holy places which are now treated with ignominy and irreverently polluted with their filthiness” (8).
This caused great outrage, in part because the average Western European was better acquainted with the Bible lands, as they called them, than any place other than their own villages and towns. The Holy Land was the Christians’ “other home.” When the great cry “Deus vult” (God wills it!) broke forth, it was the zealous response of fervent Christians who felt their religious symbols and heritage violated.
7. James of Vitry, Historia, I, p. 1081 in J.S.C. Riley-Smith, “Peace Never Established: The Case of the Kingdom of Jerusalem,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sept. 15, 1977, p. 89.
8. Munro, “Urban and the Crusaders,” pp. 5-8
This call for a war to defend the religious patrimony of all Christendom quickly reverberated throughout the West, and initiated a great alliance of kingdoms who came together to fight a common threat to the West.
A threat to very existence of Western Civilization
What was this actual threat to the West?
By the end of the 11th century, the Muslim Turks had turned their attention to Asia Minor. The conquering Muslim hordes swept through the Christian East, and finally turned toward Constantinople. The new Emperor, Alexius Comnenus, realized his weakened state and appealed to Western Christendom for help to protect his crumbling empire.
The Christian West, which had launched the Reconquista of the Iberian kingdoms in the 8th century, were already combating the Almohades Muslims, ferocious and fanatical Arab invaders from Morocco, on their own soil. The threat of the fall of the Eastern Christian capital, Constantinople, to the Turks would leave the West vulnerable to an attack from a united and strong Arab front in the East. Convinced that the menace of Islam threatened the existence of Western civilization and that he alone had the power to organize a large expeditionary force to defend Christianity from the Muslim advance, Pope Urban II made a call to the nobility of Western Europe.
The response to Pope Urban II’s plea was overwhelming. Large numbers answered the call with great enthusiasm and streamed eastward in several waves. Beyond all reasonable expectations, the Crusaders retook Jerusalem on July 15, 1099 (9), establishing several Crusader states that would last for almost two centuries.
9. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, ed. Jonathan Riley-Smith, (Oxford/NY: Oxford Un. Press, 1995, p. 141.
Heroic undertaking in the service of a great ideal
The Crusades left a positive mark on the Western imagination. The very expression, crusade, became and has remained synonymous with heroic endeavors in the service of a great ideal. As recently as last month, President George Bush adapted the term to the present situation and called for a “crusade” against international terrorism.
For medieval man, the Crusade was an act of piety and love of God and neighbor. But it was also a means of defending their world, their culture, their religion, and their way of life. Then, as today, men fight for what is most dear to them. Then, as today, it is the right thing to do.
How, then, does one explain the anti-crusade movement in our country? A point of reference would be the pacifist minorities who zealously promote it here and there, often on university campuses. They represent the most deleterious segments of public opinion – communists, hippies, homosexuals, ecologists, feminists, liberal religious, etc., and their voices are echoed loudly in the media. Their obvious goal is to discredit the Catholic Church and her past heroes. It would be difficult to understand how the anti-crusade movement has managed to impose its unhistorical and distorted theses so profoundly on the Western mentality, except for the fact that it was accomplished with the full support of the progressivist current in the Church. But this is yet another topic, better left for discussion in a separate article.
Related Topic of Interest
A Counter Crusade
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