Understanding the Crusades
By Marian Therese 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
|Pope Urban II
called for a Crusade at Clermont in 1095 and gave a plenary indulgence
to the fighters.
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).
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
(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.
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
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.
1. the peril of losing valuable religious principles, such as freedom of
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
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
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 12th
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)
Hillaire Belloc, The Great Heresies, Chapter Four
But, back to the history. By the second half of the 12th 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)
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
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.
The positive religious factor: feelings about
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
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:
“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”
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.
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.
(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
What was this actual threat to the West?
By the end of the 12th 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
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
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.