In defense of the Crusades


Public Domain

Livonian Brothers of the Sword

Livonian Brothers of the Sword

Livonian Brothers of the Sword

It’s been a week since President Obama had the chutzpah to declare, after denouncing ISIL (“a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism”): “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ” — a Benghazi-like pronouncement that Fox News is still on his case about.

As a card-carrying (if mostly non-practicing) medieval historian, I feel honor-bound to weigh in on the liberation of the Holy Land at the end of the 11th century. Let’s begin with Thomas Madden in First Things, defending the Crusades against remarks by President Clinton in the wake of 9/11. These military expeditions, writes Madden, met the criteria of medieval just war theory, intended as they were to stop Muslim aggression against Eastern Christianity.

But the Crusades were not just wars. They were holy wars, and that is what made them different from what came before. They were made holy not by their target but by the Crusaders’ sacrifice. The Crusade was a pilgrimage and thereby an act of penance. When Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095, he created a model that would be followed for centuries. Crusaders who undertook that burden with right intention and after confessing their sins would receive a plenary indulgence. The indulgence was a recognition that they undertook these sacrifices for Christ, who was crucified again in the tribulations of his people.

OK, then, let’s stipulate that the Crusaders — so called because they wore the cross — were all about getting their sins remitted. Now let’s turn to the main Christian chronicler of the First Crusade, Fulcher of Chartres, who was an eyewitness to both Urban’s initial summons and the capture of Jerusalem. Here’s how he describes the final, uh, battle:

On top of Solomon’s Temple, to which they had climbed in fleeing, many were shot to death with arrows and cast down headlong from the roof. Within this Temple about ten thousand were beheaded. If you had been there, your feet would have been stained up to the ankles with the blood of the slain. What more shall I tell: Not one of them was allowed to live. They did not spare the women and children.

It’s possible, of course, that the blood was not actually ankle-deep. It’s even possible that Fulcher himself was less than enthused about this slaughter one thousand years after sacrifice had ceased on the Temple Mount.

But the denouement, the reestablishment of Christian control over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, filled him with joy: “Cleansed from the contagion, of the heathen inhabiting it at one time or another, so long contaminated by their superstition, it was restored to its former rank by those believing and trusting in Him,” he writes, adding that “what the Lord wished to be fulfilled, I believe, by this people so dear…will resound and continue in a memorial of all the languages of the universe to the end of the ages.”

Having gained control of Jerusalem, the penitents set about the business of establishing, well, Crusader States. Eventually these would include territory not only in the Holy Land but also on Cyprus, in the Balkans, and in the Baltics. Complete with feudal and canon law, we might even want to call them the Christian State in the Levant and Elsewhere (CSLE). Let’s just not get on our high horse about it.