The history of crusades, in the present era, is being viewed by the anti-Catholics as blood-thirsty war led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics. Crusades are portrayed as the epitome of self-righteousness and intolerance, a black stain on the history of Christianity — in the holy Catholic Church in particular and Western civilization in general. But in the midst of this common mispresentation, what is then the truth behind these holy Crusades?
“The Crusades” generally refer to the set of nine distinct major campaigns over a 150 year period (1099 to 1254 A.D.) that were enacted to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslim control. Since the birth of Islam under the self-claimed prophet Muhammed, Muslims had fought to bring the world under their control. From the time of Mohammed, the means of Islamic expansion was always the sword. The Muslims had divided the world into two spheres — the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War; yet Christianity had no abode. After a few centuries of conquest, Islam occupied North Africa, the Middle East, Asia Minor, and Spain. By the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks took over Palestine and the city of Jerusalem became a place of persecution for Jews and Christians. The Muslim invaders sacked Constantinople, and headed into Europe, before the first Crusade was called upon to defend the entire Christendom.
As the words of Pope Urban II, addressed the Church in the local council of Clermont, called upon the Christians to unity against invaders:
“The Muslims have invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. 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. The kingdom of the Greeks is now dismembered by them and deprived of territory so vast in extent that it can not be traversed in a march of two months. On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you? You, upon whom above other nations God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength to humble the hairy scalp of those who resist you.”
Such motivated the birth of the holy pilgrimages, the retaking of what is for Christ.
Below are the Crusades launched:
THE FIRST CRUSADE (1096-1099)
It began in when armies of Christians from Western Europe responded to Pope Urban II’s plea to go to war against Muslim forces in the Holy Land. After the First Crusade achieved its goal with the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, the invading Christians set up several Latin Christian states in Jerusalem, Edessa, Antioch and Tripoli.
THE SECOND CRUSADE (1147-1149)
It was called by Pope Eugene II, preached by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and led by King Louis VII of France and King Conrad of Germany, to recover the city of Edessa, which had been taken by the Muslims in 1144. However, the combined Muslim forces dealt a humiliating defeat to the Crusaders.
THE THIRD CRUSADE (1189-1192)
It was proposed by Pope Gregory VIII to recapture Jerusalem from Saladin. Call to crusade answered by German Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, French King Philip Augustus and English King Richard the Lionheart. Frederick drowned in Cilicia; Philip returned after the capture of Acre (1191), and Richard campaigned until 1192, when he made peace with Saladin, a compromise which left the Christians in control of the coast down to Ascalon and Saladin as ruler of Jerusalem, with Christian pilgrims allowed free access to the Holy City.
THE FOURTH CRUSADE (1202-1204)
It was initiated by Pope Innocent III in 1200 with preaching taking place in France, England, and Germany. This crusade never reached the Holy Land due to lack of finances, instead, it became a vehicle for the political ambitions of Doge Enrico Dandolo and the German King Philip of Swabia who was married to Irene of Byzantium. Dandolo saw an opportunity to expand Venice’s possessions in the near east, while Philip saw the crusade as a chance to restore his exiled nephew, Alexios IV Angelos, to the throne of Byzantium. Thus, attacking and occupying Constantinople. Pope Innocent III was appalled and excommunicated the Venetian crusaders and forbade any attack to Byzantium. However, the seige still pushed through which ended to the establishment of two Roman Empires in the East: a Latin “Empire of the Straits”, existing until 1261, and a Byzantine enclave ruled from Nicea, which later regained control in the absence of the Venetian fleet.
THE FIFTH CRUSADE (1217-1221)
It was initiated by Pope Innocent III along with his summoning of the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215. But this too became a failure as the crusaders were forced to surrender by the forces of the Ayyubid Sultan Al-Kamil.
THE SIXTH CRUSADE (1228-1229)
It began with Emperor Frederick II took the vow of crusades and marched to Acre in Syria, which was under the command of Islamic Mamluks. Due to lack of support, he did not becoming successful in this conquest; instead he accepted the offer from Al Kamil, ruler of Egypt, to help the latter against his enemies and in return, Frederick would rule Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem. For this, he was excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX in 1228 and a follow-up crusade was called upon under King Theobald I of Navarre, Peter of Dreux and Hugh, Duke of Burgundy, and other French nobles. After their defeat in 1239, Theobald returned to Europe. This was continued by Richard of Cornwall, younger brother of King Henry III of England, in 1240; but he still ended up with the same fate, and left Palestine under the hands of Islamic forces.
THE SEVENTH CRUSADE (1248-1254)
It was organized by King Louis IX of France as a response to the defeat of the crusaders in Jerusalem by the Khwarezmian force summoned by the son of al-Kamil, al-Salih Ayyub. During this period, King Louis IX was captured; thus leaving the Holy Land still under the Islamic control.
THE EIGHTH AND NINTH CRUSADES (1270-1272)
It began after King Louis IX was ransomed from captivity and attacked the Arabs in Tunis in North Africa. He picked the hottest season of the year for campaigning and his army was devastated by disease. The king himself died, ending the last major attempt to take the Holy Land. After the death of the French king, King Edward I of England began the seige of Acre and accomplished little in the Holy Land. This ended the major Crusades.
MOREOVER, it has been said that when the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 they massacred every man, woman, and child in the city until “the streets ran ankle deep with the blood.” But this is, of course, not true. Crusades were organized to defend the Holy Land from Islamic occupation and not to murder innocents. But was there violence? Certainly. In that time, a city, that had to be taken by force, belonged to the victorious invaders – including people. This is comparable to modern warfare – sometimes soldiers go off and commit horrible acts during war – but that is not an indictment on the legitimacy of the war itself, nor of the ruling authority (provided it did not command nor overlook such acts). Muslim cities that surrendered to the Crusaders were even left untouched, the people retained their property, and they were allowed to worship freely.
Did the Crusaders murder the Jews?
The Church did not ever call a Crusade against the Jewish people. Sadly, there were unprovoked attacks on Jewish settlements by some rogue Crusaders, but the Church actually spoke out against them and some local bishops, clergy, and laity attempted to defend the Jews against them. As for killing Jews, Rodney Stark, distinguished Professor of Social Sciences and Co-director for the Institute for the Studies of Religion at Baylor University, wrote in God’s Battalions, “It is important to note that almost everywhere … bishops attempted, sometimes even at the peril of their own lives, to protect the Jews.” Likewise Thomas Madden wrote:
“Jews perished during the Crusades, but the purpose of the Crusades was not to kill Jews. Quite the contrary: Popes, bishops, and preachers made it clear that the Jews of Europe were to be left unmolested.”
In addtion to this, the massacre of the Rhineland Jews by the People’s Crusade, and other associated persecutions, were condemned by the authorities of the holy Catholic Church. The bishops of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms had attempted to protect the Jews of those towns within the walls of their own palaces, but the People’s Crusade broke in to slaughter them.
Pope Gregory I (590-604 AD) wrote, “Just as the Jews should not in their synagogues be free to do anything not permitted by law, so also in those things granted them they should have no infringement of their rights” (Sicut Iudaeis Non). Following the same principle, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, preaching the Second Crusade, told the soldiers of Christ, “The Jews are not to be persecuted, killed, or even put to flight.”
Jewish Rabbi Efraim of Bonn wrote in testimony: “Bernard said to them [the Crusaders]: ‘It is good that you go against the Ishmaelites [Muslims]. But whosoever touches a Jew to take his life, is like one who harms Jesus himself . . .’ When our enemies heard his words, many of them ceased plotting to kill us . . . Were it not for the mercy of our creator in sending the aforementioned abbot [Bernard] and his later letters, no remnant or vestige would have remained of Israel. Blessed be the redeemer and savior, blessed be his name.”
If the holy Catholic Church is to be hated due to the unintentional death of those innocent women and children during the peroid of Crusades, then God Himself must be hated too for the death of those innocents in the Old Testament’s battle of liberation.
“Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (I Samuel 15:2-3)
“And we utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon king of Hesbon, utterly destroying the men, women, and children, of every city. But all the cattle, and the spoil of the cities we took for a prey to ourselves.” (Deuteronomy 3:6-7)
“The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.” (Hosea 13:16)
BUT remember that God did not permit the death of His creation just for nothing. This happened in accordance to His Divine Will for a certain purpose: the survival of His chosen people — the great nation of Israel (Old Testament) and the holy Catholic Church (New Testament).
Without the Crusades, there could be no FREE Christians today. But God is faithful to His promise: “He will be with the Church until the end of times” (cf. Matthew 28:20). The Crusades were God’s gift of fidelity and love to His Church, that is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.
Nonetheless, the Crusades were not mere games of thrones but holy Wars against the enemies of Christ and His Church. It was only given negative representation during the period of Reformation. Thomas F. Madden, an American medieval historian and Director of Saint Louis University’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, says that:
“During the Middle Ages you could not find a Christian in Europe who did not believe that the Crusades were an act of highest good. Even the Muslims respected the ideals of the Crusades and the piety of the men who fought them. But that all changed with the Protestant Reformation. For Martin Luther . . . argued that to fight the Muslims was to fight Christ himself, for it was he who had sent the Turks to punish Christendom for its faithlessness . . . It was in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that the current view of the Crusades was born.”
Indeed, it was the works of the Protestants that established disbelief on importance of the Crusades in the life of Christianity. It was the Protestants who disrespected the heroism of the Christians who fought for the liberation of the Holy Land and the survival of the Christendom. As Rodney Stark put it, “Western condemnation of the Crusades were widespread during the ‘Enlightenment,’ that utterly misnamed era during which French and British intellectuals invented the ‘Dark Ages’ in order to glorify themselves and vilify the Catholic Church.”
But were the Crusades morally acceptable? The doctrine of holy war (crusade) added two further assumptions:
- Violence and its consequences – death and injury – are morally neutral rather than intrinsically evil, and whether violence is good or bad is a matter of intention. (The analogy is to a surgeon, who cuts into the body, thus injuring it, in order to make it better/healthier.)
- Christ is concerned with the political order of man, and intends for his agents on earth, kings, popes, bishops, to establish on earth a Christian Republic that was a single, universal, transcendental state ruled by Christ through the lay and clerical magistrates he endowed with authority.
It follows from this that the defense of the Christian Republic against God’s enemies, whether foreign infidel (e.g. Turks) or domestic heretics and Jews was a moral imperative for those qualified to fight. A Crusade was a holy war fought against external or internal enemies for the recovery of Christian property or defense of the Church or the Christian people.
The Crusades might not have been called for the “conversion of the infidel,” but they need not have been to be just. Defending one’s life or land is reason enough to fight – and to the degree that that was intended by the Crusaders, they were in the right.
BE GRATEFUL TO THE CRUSADERS THAT YOUR FAITH IS STILL KICKING!