Are the Academics right? Should we apologize for the Crusades?

Horrible Crusaders vs. Enlightened Muslim Expansion

In the first place, the crusades were a reaction. They were a reaction to a cry of help in the form of a letter from the emperor of Byzantium in 1095 AD, asking for help in dealing with the Seljuk Turks. The armies of these tribes from Turkestan had just conquered Jerusalem (taking it from another Muslim ruler) and were marching towards Constantinople.

Christian pilgrims had been persecuted, stoned, imprisoned and slaughtered for centuries under Muslim rule, but now with a new Muslim army conquering Jerusalem and the surrounding lands the plight of Christian pilgrims worsened. The newly converted Seljuk Turks gave the city of Jerusalem their promise of safety if it would surrender and open its gates; but when the Fatimid Muslim rulers surrendered they were slaughtered along with half of the populace and the city pillaged.

Nor was the letter from Alexius Comnenus the first time Christian Europe had been prodded into reacting to Muslim aggression. It hadn’t been that long since Charles Martel had stopped the Muslim invaders in France; a battle which marked the beginning of the end of Muslim occupation in southern Europe. Spain and Italy were just finishing the process of pushing out the Islamic invaders.

So even though relations between the Greek and Latin churches had never been good, there were reasons why Pope Urban II was willing to respond in the affirmative. The Muslim armies had not been invited into Egypt, North Africa, Syria, Persia, Palestine, Cyprus, Sardinia, Malta or Europe. Mohammad had started out raiding trade caravans and then targeted Jewish towns for plunder, and then the villages of those Arab tribes which resisted his movement. Gaining control he then began to lead his army to the north, west and east and the invasions continued after his death.

The idea that the crusaders were motivated by financial gain; jewels, silver, gold and lands, even colonization, was first offered by a Lutheran scholar in the late 18th century and reached a crescendo in the 20th and 21st Centuries. In fact, the Knights often went into hock up to their necks, often “knowingly bankrupting themselves to go.” (Stark, 2009) They sold off huge tracts of land or, more often, mortgaged everything they owned. The records of these mortgages still survive and as a vast number of knights died on crusade, many were foreclosed.

Achard of Montmerle is a good example. He pledged his property to the monks of Cluny for money for his journey and equipment, declaring in writing that only he could redeem his pledge and that if he died, all of his property would become part of the estate of the Monastery of Cluny. Achard died in battle in the Holy Land. By the third crusade, knights like King Richard would place taxes on all of his subjects and turn over every stone in order to try and offset the huge cost of traveling all the way to the Middle East and maintaining an army there.

The crusader also had to provide for his family and estate while he was gone, besides pay for all his equipment and horses and traveling expenses. Stark estimated each crusader had to gather at least four times his annual income before he could leave on crusade and points out the folly that makes of the claim that the crusades were an avenue to provide land and income for landless sons. (Stark, 2009)

Which brings up another cost; the risk of life and limb, which was great just in traveling the many thousands of miles to get there, only to engage in horrendous bloody battles against a foe that usually outnumbered them, was accustomed to desert warfare and could easily resupply.

It is estimated that in the first crusade, over 120000 crusaders set out but only about 15000 actually made it to Jerusalem. (Stark, Runciman) By the time of the third crusade, things hadn’t changed any and it has been chronicled that John, King Richard’s brother, was absolutely certain that he would become king because the chance of Richard’s safe return was “against all laws of probability”. (McLynn) If it was a business operation it certainly was a risky one.

The Christian “colonies” in the Mid-East never became self-sustaining and instead had to be heavily subsidized by Western Europe at a painfully high cost. (Stark, 2009) Historians have recognized the wisdom in King Richards’s decision not to reconquer Jerusalem; being content with retaking and securing the coastlands. Richard realized that the west could not afford to maintain an army sufficient to defend so large an area. (McLynn)

The crusader may have been led to pick up the cross and begin his crusade for many reasons, but money and land speculation was not high on the list.

Despite the mockery and clamor of cynical modern academia and scholarship, the reason the average knight set out on crusade was generally twofold; penance and a genuine desire to serve God by delivering the Holy Lands out of Moslem hands, thus protecting the relics and holy sites and the pilgrims who traveled so far to view them.

Some were probably less sincere in their penance and faith than others and were adventurers who genuinely loved war and warfare. These were knights whose entire lives had been wrapped around the martial arts and who had trained in swordsmanship and jousting and horsemanship from their earliest days. King Richard in the third crusade had nothing to gain by going on a dangerous trip to the Mid-East. But while little is said about penance by him or about him, he like many others firmly believed in the crusade and saw liberating the Holy Land and sepulcher of Christ as a sacred duty. His father Henry the 2nd and his brother John were both known for their anti-Christian ravings and each of them managed to avoid the costly and dangerous trip to the holy land. And neither were lacking in avarice for money or power.

However to under estimate the power of penance and the role it played in the crusades is to ignore the most powerful underlying motivation for the vast majority of knights. It was a pilgrimage of the kind often done by repentant believers in the middle ages; but instead of only traveling the great distance and visiting the holy sites, you made war on the infidel warriors holding them and persecuting your fellow pilgrims there. That penance was not a biblical doctrine is true enough, but the bible was not available to the average knight and the doctrine of salvation by faith had been reduced to being taught only by a few orders of monks, like the Augustinians.

But these knights firmly believed in heaven and hell and that the merits of Christ could be obtained through taking part in the battle for the holy land. Stark gives numerous examples of the wide spread belief in and practice of pilgrimages and their atoning power. One example he gives are the laws of Canute, the Viking king of Denmark;

“If anyone slays a minister of the altar, he is to be an outlaw before man and God, unless he atones for it very deeply by pilgrimage.” (Webb, Stark)

This is just one of many laws dealing with penance. As Pope Urban clearly said;

“Whoever goes on the journey to free the Church of God in Jerusalem out of devotion alone, and not for the gaining of glory or money, can substitute the journey for all penance from sin.”


“Christian warriors, who continually and vainly seek pretext for war, rejoice, for today you have found a true pretext…Soldiers of Hell, become the soldiers of the living God!” (Stark)

As Rodney Stark points out, there was no mention of converting the Muslims as an objective of the journey by force or otherwise. Some seemed to understand the free gift of Christ yet were motivated by what appeared to be genuine devotion, if not by penance. One Burgundian knight put it this way;

“Consider how many are my sins and the love, clemency and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, because when he was rich he became poor for our sake, I have determined to repay him in some measure for everything he has given me freely, although I am unworthy. And so I have decided to go to Jerusalem where God was seen as man and spoke to men, and to adore the place where his feet trod.” (Stark, 2009)

And then their behavior once they arrived in the Holy Land must be examined. Did they behave like calculating business opportunists, scouting for the best land and trying to avoid any un-necessary risk in combat?

Hardly. They more often than not engaged in behavior that went beyond the pale in any war; routinely charging fearlessly into far larger groups of Muslim warriors. In one battle Gerard de Rideford led his force of only a few hundred knights charging headlong into a standing army of over 25,000 warriors of Saladin. Often such charges put entire Muslim armies to flight. This time, only four of Rideford’s soldiers survived to tell the story.

Such actions were not unusual; they were the norm. And while from our point of view they may appear to border on the foolhardy, they certainly were not the actions of men whose over-riding goal was to get rich quick in the Holy Land.However misguided their faith may have been, however violent their actions, to be misjudged by a generation of scholars and ideologists as a wild gang of money seeking expansionists is cynical and narrow, and worse; inaccurate. Perhaps the undaunted zeal and unflinching courage of those hardened knights, fired by their unsophisticated faith, frightens modern scholars so they must quickly put a different face upon the history.

But whatever the case, the popular story is just another myth of modern academia.

(Excerpted from ch.1 Myths of Modern Academia, vol.3, The Crusades, Mark Hodges)


About notmanynoble

woodcutter from Washington State
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