Exploring Four Myths About the Crusades

Back in Seminary I remember a Church History instructor warning us not to be “too defensive” of the Church when others point to our shortcomings. He said that the Church is so big and so old, that just about anything you can say probably has some truth to it. He went on to clarify that it didn’t mean that everything said about the Church was necessarily fair or set in proper context to be understood. Neither was it fair that the Church was often singled out. Nevertheless given the billions who have been Catholic over 2000 years, there are plenty of sinners and plenty of saints, lots of glory and lots that was gory. So be careful he said, “Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish.

Hence when we come to the Crusades, we have a bit of a balancing act. At one level, the usual pointing to this historical period with selective moral outrage, is a tired old attack on the Church, an attack, usually simplistic in its understanding, devoid of historical context, and quite one-sided. That said, there were surely excesses and gravely sinful acts that often come in the fog of any war, religious or not.

With that in mind I’d like to look at excerpts from article recently published over at First Principles, the Article is Entitled: Four Myths About the Crusades. The Author is Paul Crawford. In the excerpts that follow, his text is in bold, black italics. My comments are in red plain text. The full text of his lengthy and excellent article can be read by click the title above.

Myth #1: The crusades represented an unprovoked attack by Western Christians on the Muslim world.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and even a cursory chronological review makes that clear. In a.d. 632, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica were all Christian territories. Inside the boundaries of the Roman Empire, which was still fully functional in the eastern Mediterranean, orthodox Christianity was the official, and overwhelmingly majority, religion. Outside those boundaries were other large Christian communities—not necessarily orthodox and Catholic, but still Christian. Most of the Christian population of Persia, for example, was Nestorian. Certainly there were many Christian communities in Arabia.

By a.d. 732, a century later, Christians had lost Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa, Spain, most of Asia Minor, and southern France. Italy and her associated islands were under threat, and the islands would come under Muslim rule in the next century. The Christian communities of Arabia were entirely destroyed in or shortly after 633, when Jews and Christians alike were expelled from the peninsula. Those in Persia were under severe pressure. Two-thirds of the formerly Roman Christian world was now ruled by Muslims.

What had happened?…The answer is the rise of Islam. Every one of the listed regions was taken, within the space of a hundred years, from Christian control by violence, in the course of military campaigns deliberately designed to expand Muslim territory….Nor did this conclude Islam’s program of conquest….Charlemagne blocked the Muslim advance in far western Europe in about a.d. 800, but Islamic forces simply shifted their focus…toward Italy and the French coast, attacking the Italian mainland by 837. A confused struggle for control of southern and central Italy continued for the rest of the ninth century and into the tenth. …[A]ttacks on the deep inland were launched. Desperate to protect victimized Christians, popes became involved in the tenth and early eleventh centuries in directing the defense of the territory around them…..The Byzantines took a long time to gain the strength to fight back. By the mid-ninth century, they mounted a counterattack….Sharp Muslim counterattacks followed…

In 1009, a mentally deranged Muslim ruler destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and mounted major persecutions of Christians and Jews….Pilgrimages became increasingly difficult and dangerous, and western pilgrims began banding together and carrying weapons to protect themselves as they tried to make their way to Christianity’s holiest sites in Palestine.

Desperate, the Byzantines sent appeals for help westward, directing these appeals primarily at the person they saw as the chief western authority: the pope, who, as we have seen, had already been directing Christian resistance to Muslim attacks….finally, in 1095, Pope Urban II realized Pope Gregory VII’s desire, in what turned into the First Crusade.

Far from being unprovoked, then, the crusades actually represent the first great western Christian counterattack against Muslim attacks which had taken place continually from the inception of Islam until the eleventh century, and which continued on thereafter, mostly unabated. Three of Christianity’s five primary episcopal sees (Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria) had been captured in the seventh century; both of the others (Rome and Constantinople) had been attacked in the centuries before the crusades. The latter would be captured in 1453, leaving only one of the five (Rome) in Christian hands by 1500. Rome was again threatened in the sixteenth century. This is not the absence of provocation; rather, it is a deadly and persistent threat, and one which had to be answered by forceful defense if Christendom were to survive.

It is difficult to underestimate the losses suffered by the Church in the waves of Muslim conquest. All of North Africa, once teeming with Christians, was conquered. There were once 500 bishops in North Africa. Now, even to this day, the Christian Church there exists only in ruins buried beneath the sand and with titular but non-residential bishops. All of Asia Minor, so lovingly evangelized by St. Paul, was lost. Much of Southern Europe was almost lost as well. It is hard to imagine any alternative to decisive military action in order to turn back waves of Muslim attack and conquest.

Myth #2: Western Christians went on crusade because their greed led them to plunder Muslims in order to get rich.

Again, not true. Few crusaders had sufficient cash both to pay their obligations at home and to support themselves decently on a crusade.” From the very beginning, financial considerations played a major role in crusade planning. The early crusaders sold off so many of their possessions to finance their expeditions that they caused widespread inflation. Although later crusaders took this into account and began saving money long before they set out, the expense was still nearly prohibitive.

One of the chief reasons for the foundering of the Fourth Crusade, and its diversion to Constantinople, was the fact that it ran out of money before it had gotten properly started, and was so indebted to the Venetians that it found itself unable to keep control of its own destiny. Louis IX’s Seventh Crusade in the mid-thirteenth century cost more than six times the annual revenue of the crown.

The popes resorted to ever more desperate ploys to raise money to finance crusades, from instituting the first income tax in the early thirteenth century to making a series of adjustments in the way that indulgences were handled that eventually led to the abuses condemned by Martin Luther.

In short: very few people became rich by crusading, and their numbers were dwarfed by those who were bankrupted. Most medieval people were quite well aware of this, and did not consider crusading a way to improve their financial situations.

Crawford states elsewhere, that plunder was often allowed or overlooked, when Christian armies conquered, in order that some bills could be paid. Sadly, plunder was commonly permitted in ancient times but was not unique to Christians. Here again, we may wish that Christian sentiments would have meant no plunder at all, but war is seldom orderly, and the motive of every individual solider cannot be perfectly controlled.

The bottom line remains, conducting a crusade was a lousy way to get rich or raise any money at all.

Myth #3: Crusaders were a cynical lot who did not really believe their own religious propaganda; rather, they had ulterior, materialistic motives.

This has been a very popular argument, at least from Voltaire on. It seems credible and even compelling to modern people, steeped as they are in materialist worldviews. And certainly there were cynics and hypocrites in the Middle Ages—medieval people were just as human as we are, and subject to the same failings.

However, like the first two myths, this statement is generally untrue, and demonstrably so. For one thing, the casualty rates on the crusades were usually very high, and many if not most crusaders left expecting not to return. At least one military historian has estimated the casualty rate for the First Crusade at an appalling 75 percent, for example.

But this assertion is also revealed to be false when we consider the way in which the crusades were preached. Crusaders were not drafted. Participation was voluntary, and participants had to be persuaded to go. The primary means of persuasion was the crusade sermon. Crusade sermons were replete with warnings that crusading brought deprivation, suffering, and often death….would disrupt their lives, possibly impoverish and even kill or maim them, and inconvenience their families.

So why did the preaching work? It worked because crusading was appealing precisely because it was a known and significant hardship, and because undertaking a crusade with the right motives was understood as an acceptable penance for sin….valuable for one’s soul. The willing acceptance of difficulty and suffering was viewed as a useful way to purify one’s soul

Related to the concept of penance is the concept of crusading as an act of selfless love, of “laying down one’s life for one’s friends.”

As difficult as it may be for modern people to believe, the evidence strongly suggests that most crusaders were motivated by a desire to please God, expiate their sins, and put their lives at the service of their “neighbors,” understood in the Christian sense.

Yes, and such concepts ARE difficult for modern Westerners to believe. Since we are so secular and cynical, the thought of spiritual motives strike us as implausible. But a great Cartesian divide, with its materialist reductionism,  separates the Modern West from the Middle Ages and Christian antiquity.  Those were days when life in this world was brutal and short, and life here was “a valley of tears” to be endured as a time of purification preparing us to meet God. Spiritual principles held much more sway than today.

Myth #4: The crusades taught Muslims to hate and attack Christians.

Muslims had been attacking Christians for more than 450 years before Pope Urban declared the First Crusade. They needed no incentive to continue doing so. But there is a more complicated answer here, as well.

The first Muslim crusade history did not [even] appear until 1899. By that time, the Muslim world was rediscovering the crusades—but it was rediscovering them with a twist learned from Westerners. In the modern period, there were two main European schools of thought about the crusades. One school, epitomized by people like Voltaire, Gibbon, and Sir Walter Scott, and in the twentieth century Sir Steven Runciman, saw the crusaders as crude, greedy, aggressive barbarians who attacked civilized, peace-loving Muslims to improve their own lot. The other school, more romantic, saw the crusades as a glorious episode in a long-standing struggle in which Christian chivalry had driven back Muslim hordes.

So it was not the crusades that taught Islam to attack and hate Christians. …Rather, it was the West which taught Islam to hate the crusades.

Yes, the strange self-loathing tendencies of the dying West do supply our detractors, and would-be destroyers, with ample reason to detest us.

I am interested in your thoughts. I don’t think it is necessary to vehemently defend the Church’s and the Christian West’s series of Crusades. There were many regrettable things that accompany any war. But fair is fair, there is more to the picture than many, with anti-Church agendas of their own, wish to admit.

And for those secularist and atheists who love to tout “how many have died as the result of religious wars and violence,” We do well to recall how many died in the 20th century for secular ideological reasons. Paul Johnson, the English Historian, in his book Modern Times, places the number at 1oo million.

Does this excuse even one person dying as the result of religious war? No. But fair is fair. Violence, war, conquest  and territorial disputes, are human problems not necessarily or only religious ones.

Painting: The Preaching of the Crusades form Wikipedia Commons

This video covers some of the Christian ruins in North Africa, including the See of St Cyprian of Carthage

81 Replies to “Exploring Four Myths About the Crusades”

  1. Thank you for standing up for Christianity. I wish this history had been taught to me in school.

  2. Excellent article. Several years ago read the book, “St. Bernard of Clairvoux”, wherein it described how St. Bernard went out, on request of the Pope, preaching the first crusade. St. Bernard was hugely conflicted over the request, but did it out of obedience.

    Another great story with respect to the incursion of Islamists into Europe is that of the Battle of Lepanto. That episode clearly shows the aggression of the forces of the Muslim Ali Pasha (and others). There is an excellent article on that battle and its precipitating events here: http://traditioninaction.org/History/A_001_Lepanto.html

        1. I know just what you mean I have some very, very clear memories of the coplue of days leading up to my eldest’s birth (he, too, was due on October 12, though in 2006, and didn’t show up until the 20th). A lot of what happened directly after is a blur, but not those moments before. And I wonder a lot about how much I’ve changed since motherhood. Am I still the same person I was before he arrived? I can’t decide yes or no, or how much. But I feel both wistful and happy when his birthday comes around.Happy labor day to you, and early happy birthday to Vija!Allisonb4s last [type] ..

  3. Just because the Crusaders were truly motivated by religious fervor and a love for Christ does not mean that their actions are in any way to be viewed as justified, Christ-like or admirable. Their actions definitely do not need a clergyman making excuses on their behalf almost 1,000 years after the fact. It was a disgraceful episode no matter how you slice it and the sooner we move on from that as a Church, the better. I’m sure that Muslim suicide bombers are motivated by a love of God and an outrage over perceived Western persecution and oppression. It does not mean that their crusade against the West is in any way justified.

    1. Hey, Tim, no need to be all superior and stuff. Explaining historical context and subtleties is not excusing, war is always regrettable. To some degree your comment seemingly equating suicide bombers with the crusaders is emblematic of the moral equivalence so typical of we moderns. There are distinctions to be made and historical context is helpful in assessing what you understandably consider to be a morally troublesome period.

      1. I apologize if I came across as superior and stuff. I do however see a similarity between any people (modern or medieval) using religion as a justification for horrific crimes against humanity. In other words, the Saracens of the Middle Ages committed atrocities against Christian pilgrims. Shouldn’t the response of the Body of Christ be more Christ-like instead of the Old Testament adage “an eye for an eye”? I do not feel that it is at all productive for our Church today to make excuses, defend, or in any way try to give some sort of historical context in order to justify actions that can only be seen as morally wrong. Are members of the Church having their feelings hurt because not a lot of Church leaders are standing up and saying “You know what, history professors, you guys are being a little too harsh on us for those Crusades.” If their feelings are hurt, I’m sorry for them because their priorities for their Church seem out of line. Isn’t being ashamed the next step to reconciliation? In this modern world where secularism reigns in many circles, wouldn’t we have more to celebrate if we appeared humble and willing to admit mistakes as well as vocal and instrumental in working to bring about God’s Kingdom? As the world is today, that just seems like a better approach.

        ~Peace of Christ, Msgr. Pope

        1. But fair is fair, not just what the critics say and there are other perspectives than merely the Church and religion are evil as many say. As you can see by my opening remarks, I am not going to say there was no sin. But simple mea culpas also have to be balanced with greater accuracy for many use unnuanced and hyperbolic charges in an attempt to destroy faith in others, or discredit faith in general. Such things should not go unaddressed for that reason.

          1. Personally I regard all violence with abhorrence and I am very sympathetic to Mr Reid’s point BUT what would someone like Mr Reid suggest should have been the alternative? Should the European Christians have let Muslims destroy or exile or forcibly convert or reduce to oppression all the Christians in the Middle East? That’s what was at stake.

            And should we have let them come and take over Europe like they did North Africa? Because they were close to doing that, and this was their intention. And the Muslims were not trying to conquer by mere conversion and persuasion, but with powerful armies who were killing actual people! Had they made it past the Pyrenees, or if they had won the battle of Lepanto, Christian Europe could have vanished and become a part of a Muslim empire.

            I’m not trying to be sarcastic, I really want to know what Mr Reid would say.

            Also, I think reconciliation has to be based on the truth. If Muslims persist in claiming to have been utterly innocent, when in fact their goal was world domination (and for at least some still is), then truth is lacking. Where are their apologies for massacring Christians? We apologize all over ourselves–have they done the same? (Would be pretty hard since Muslim countries still persecute Christians, or reduce them to having no religious freedom.)

            Meanwhile, this may become a question for us again. How about when there’s a majority of Muslims in France’s Parliament and they vote to have Sharia law…or simply have enough clout to raise an army and impose it. Do we just sit back and let them do that? Just asking! Could happen, since they have kids and Europeans don’t. Their kids already outnumber Christian kids in the schools, I read.

            There is nothing in Christianity which leads Christians to think we have to conquer the whole world physically and end up as its only rulers. But Islam has this element, and we need to take it seriously. It is not only terrorists who believe that Islam is destined to conquer all and place the whole world be under sharia law.

            We can never try to justify atrocities, of course – that’s not my point.

          2. What I would say is, just because the Crusades produced effects that benefited Europe doesn’t mean that they were good in and of themselves. And if there are Muslims claiming utter innocence in the Middle Ages, they are mistaken. And yes, there have been horrific acts perpetrated on Christians even within the last few years in Iraq and Egypt. But we cannot control their reaction or their apologizing or their attitudes. What we can do as a Church is have a higher and more dignified response than trying to justify our actions.

          3. You are still avoiding the question. What should the Christians at that time have done?

            What about at Vienna in 1529 or 1683? What about at Lepanto in 1571? Was St. Pope Pius V wrong to create the Holy League to fight the Turks?

          4. Yes, the question I posed, of what alternative action should have been taken, is being avoided. Tim, what are your thoughts on that? Surely you would not suggest that it would have been preferable to leave the Christians to be persecuted and killed, and for Europe to have been de-Christianized, with great loss of life? I assume not!

            I don’t think anyone is trying to justify atrocities. But that is not the same thing as the claim that, at least at first, the military response was a just war against an unjust aggressor. Even if one is a total pacifist one has to be able to see the difference. Then one can argue about whether it was indeed just, or whether Christians should ever use violence.

            It is a fact that Europe for centuries was under constant violent attack by Islamic forces who believed they were destined to conquer the whole world and make it an Islamic empire. I daresay that if you or I saw their armies coming over the hill, we might be tempted to wish for some Crusaders to be on hand! I say this as someone who leans towards total pacifism… and I’m not trying to be flip, but just to point out that this is not as easy a question as we sometimes make it.

            Also, seems to me that if one says the Crusades were altogether wrong, one must have something alternate to propose. Similarly, anyone who embraces pacifism must have an effective alternative to propose. By which I mean: something that would actually stop the unjust aggressor who is on the attack. I say this as one who abhors war…

            For example, one could say, “If the whole Christian world prayed and fasted, and engaged in non-violent protest, we could have driven back the Muslim aggressors without violence.” (If we believe that our God is a living God, then we must acknowledge this is a real option, not just some dream.) But we can’t just say nothing about what to do against unjust aggression, because it is still, sadly, common in our fallen world, whether it’s a drug-addled burglar about to kill your family for money, or someone like Hitler…

        2. Mr. Reid, you seem for forget that in terms of history written by history professors, there is a lot of interpretation involved, and varying interpretation at that, depending on the evidence, the perspective, and the historian’s own fallibility (and biases, when they occur). This is not, however, to say that every history professor spouts bunk. But it’s not as simple as history professors right, Church wrong. History is complicated enough as a discipline where one has to realize that at a certain level, there are reasons for advancing certain interpretations, for good and for ill. One can acknowledge that sinful action did happen during the Crusades AND acknowledge that all histories have their strengths and weaknesses, and to acknowledge that some historians are better than others. All you have to do is to read any academic journal to see what debates in historical interpretation go on there.

    2. The suicide bomber parallel is fallacious.

      For startes a suicide bomber has only one direct goad: to spread terror through murder to expand muslim hegemony or to scare the enemies of his ideology.

      The Crusaders wanted to liberate places that were conquered by violence. In a way the first Crusade is not differen than the Americans invading Normandy to free Europe from Nazi hegemony.

      While Europeans and Americans did not invdade directly muslim couintries with the inten to of conquest prior to 9/11, muslims did invade Christian countries, put countless people to the sword and they would have not relented if Charlemagne had not met in battle and later the Crusades were not organized to counteract their aggressive behavior.

      On the other hand acts like 9/11 are not acts of liberating a country subject to attack from a foreign power, but they are purely evil acts with evil intents of terrorizing entire populations.

      Now some of the crusades might not be justifible and some acts from the crusader armies might have been despicable (it was war after all), but that an is entirely different situation from terrorism.

      Also the crusades in part might be justified, since they had the aim to protect the faith (hence the soul!!!!!) and the life of million of people.

      I see no one complain the allies and USA attacking Nazi forces 60 years ago… and muslim invaders, were not much different than Germany 1940 in some aspects (although I grant that Nazi ideology is quite perverse but I do not consider Islamic religion perverse; I am not comparing here muslims to nazis, I am comparing a violent expanding empire to another, regardless of the exact ideology behing it).

      It’s easy to condemn the crusades right now, but without the crusades perhaps, now the world woul perhaps still be in a scientific dark age (oh yes… the muslims were the so “enlightined” and Christians so “barbaric”… right… see how far the muslims have come in 800 years since then…).

      1. Is the point here that the Crusades were a “good” thing and have been wrongly maligned by the history books? Or at least, that they were “morally justified”,if not entirely good? Explaining the historical context for anything is always helpful for assessing the morality of an action–circumstances DO matter clearly–but when it comes to a war and fighting against “evil empires” with violence I am forced to confront Jesus’ mandate in the garden to his Apostles who found it “hard to imagine any alternative to decisive military action”. I also wonder about the value of Christian martyrdom in the Early Church? Why do we not chastise these early witnesses as cowards for not banding together to fight the evil and oppressive Roman Empire rather than merely showing a willingness to die for their belief? How can we value the martyrs AND the Crusaders? Just a thought…

        1. I wonder if the answer to all this more ambiguous. We always want things like this to be all good or all bad. What if it’s just a mixed bag like a lot of other historical things. I do not speak here of a moral relativism, but only that in something so lengthy, and complicated as the Crusades perhaps there are many different things to analyze, rather than one.

          1. Amen, Monsignor Pope. I think that acknowledging that complexity and understanding why things happened the way they did is not to embrace moral relativism or explain something away, but that it actually impresses upon us how vast and mysterious the purview of God is. It does bring us back to the age-old problem of why it is that God permits evil to happen, and what good does come out of it, eventually. God uses even our flaws for something, no? Furthermore, he doesn’t even view time the way we are apt to do as students of history.

  4. Paul Crawford is doing great and important work. Read his books, too. Though expensive, they’re worth the price.

  5. > We do well to recall how many died in the 20th century for secular ideological reasons. Paul Johnson, the English Historian, in his book Modern Times, places the number at 1oo million.

    I think Paul Johnson is beint to kind:

    Stalin killed 50 million
    Pol Pot about 70 mil.
    Mao at least 10 mil.

    That’s already 130 mil. and that only counting the worst of communist regimes (not counting many thousands killed in Easter Europe)

    Then of course most wars have usually being fought for secular reasons throughout history, since Antiquity.

    Greek, Persians and Romans (to name a few gret empires of antiquity) did not go to war to ‘please the gods’ but to expand their secular power and riches.

    In the middle-ages, not counting the crusades, most wars in Europe have been caused by struggles between noblemen.

    Think about St. Francis of Assisi, we celebrated yesterday, he also went to war before his conversion and that was a fully political war, between secular powers, they were not fought for any religious reason.

    The wars for secular reasons were, ironically, even worse in the XVII and XVIII century during the ‘Enlightment Age’.

    1. As pointed out – even a single life is just so precious…

      Nevertheless – for the sake of accuracy – where are you getting that number for Pol Pot? I had heard 3-7 million people by the CR. On the other hand I also recall having been taught that including the government-produced famine that he caused, Mao killed 60 million people. The most of any person. (I could just go look this up, but I am just wondering if you have an answer.) Thanks

  6. Great write up! Yeah I have plenty of atheist friends say the same thing to which I bring up how lovely Mao & Stalin was & how the crusaders had those semi automatice bow n arrows & swords that brought down hundreds at a time haha

    What do you think of this video too? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLVXRrzm0kc

  7. Monsignor Pope, thanks for the great post. Comes to mind that St. Francis made an attempt to convert muslims. No go.
    St. Francis pray for us. Lepanto feast day is approaching.

  8. Re: On New Christians & Pagans

    “does not mean that their actions are in any way to be viewed as justified, Christ-like or admirable”

    Around 630 AD the holy warriors of Islam invaded both the Christian Eastern (Byzantine) and Pagan Persian Empires. They met with unbelievable success, overrunning almost all of the Persian Empire and about half of Christendom – east and west. In 717 AD Christian soldiers made a heroic stand at Constantinople followed in 732 in the West by an equally heroic stand at Tours. Both stands slowed, but did not stop, the tide of Muslim military conquest of Christian lands.

    In 1095 AD, approximately 4 1/2 Centuries after the beginning of the Muslim conquest; and in response to desperate pleas for help from Eastern Christians, Pope Urban II called upon the Men of the West to forsake family and home and aid their Christian brothers in the East. Despite appalling odds the Men of the West were remarkably successful. The fact that the light of Christianity was not extinguished by a Muslim flood is testament to their heroism and sacrifice.

    Even during the Crusades it was fashionable for intellectuals, sitting safely at home, to deride the Christian fighting men of both the East and the West. After the Reformation it became de rigueur to mock the Crusaders. Today one can find at least partial forgiveness from our neo-pagan elites for the sin of being a Christan by publicly holding in contempt these ancient soldiers of Christ.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  9. On New Christians & Pagans

    “does not mean that their actions are in any way to be viewed as justified, Christ-like or admirable”

    Around 630 AD the holy warriors of Islam invaded both the Christian Eastern (Byzantine) and Pagan Persian Empires. They met with unbelievable success, overrunning almost all of the Persian Empire and about half of Christendom – east and west. In 717 AD Christian soldiers made a heroic stand at Constantinople followed in 732 in the West by an equally heroic stand at Tours. Both stands slowed, but did not stop, the tide of Muslim military conquest of Christian lands.

    In 1095 AD, approximately 4 1/2 Centuries after the beginning of the Muslim conquest; and in response to desperate pleas for help from Eastern Christians, Pope Urban II called upon the Men of the West to forsake family and home and aid their Christian brothers in the East. Despite appalling odds the Men of the West were remarkably successful. The fact that the light of Christianity was not extinguished by a Muslim flood is testament to their heroism and sacrifice.

    Even during the Crusades it was fashionable for intellectuals, sitting safely at home, to deride the Christian fighting men of both the East and the West. After the Reformation it became de rigueur to mock the Crusaders. Today one can find at least partial forgiveness from our neo-pagan elites for the sin of being a Christan by publicly holding in contempt these ancient soldiers of Christ.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  10. Re: St. Bernard

    “St. Bernard was hugely conflicted over the request, but did it out of obedience.”

    It was the “conflicted” St. Bernard who enthusiastically promoted and almost single handedly established the military order known as the “Poor Fellow Soldiers of Jesus Christ of the Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem” or “Knight Templars”.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  11. Two great books that just arrived in our house are “Seven Lies About Catholic History” and “Catholic Controversies: Understanding Church Teachings and Events in History”. Both have an enlightening section on the Crusades and obey that wonderful dictum: “Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish.”


    PS. I met your cousin John Clem at the Catholic New Media Celebration this weekend and we exchanged compliments about your writing and preaching.

  12. Love the history that puts the crusades in proper perspective. Can we get an article on the inquisition?

    1. You can easily get heaps of stuff if you bother to google the topic. Which no doubt you would have done had you not been facetious. Admittedly, for some it is difficult to deal with facts, not just perceptions.

  13. I have always considered the modern Muslim response to the Crusades odd. After all, THEY WON! Their complaint would be comparable to the USA complaining about the outcome of WW II or the Cold War. What do they have to complain about they won!

    1. Matthew, the Cold War was a very divisive period in American History, and one that affected people at home as well as people abroad. Surely the exhaustive culture wars that we contend with, and which often plague us, is one of those ways in which people were affected. The Cold War is certainly divisive enough for historians to actively debate about who actually “won” or what it means to have won.

      1. I fail to see what “a very divisive period” means in this instance; by the way, “divisive” is an intellectually noxious word, currently abused again and again. Any war is divisive by definition.
        If, by chance, you have in mind what ill-informed people call witch hunts, they were as justified as the Crusades, if not even more so. America got infiltrated and contaminated by godless, foreign, inimical ideology of Communism, to which a small but often influential group of American citizens succumbed. Everything that was done while fighting that existential, evil threat was justified. Unfortunately, the process of obliterating Communism in the U.S. was not consequential enough, with a result similar to that of the Crusades.
        All you could possibly claim as to division during the Cold War is that a fraction of Americans sided with the enemies of the Republic, while the nation as a whole stood firm. That is why the war was generally won, albeit not completely. Just as WW2 gave rise to more strife, despite a great victory. Things do not stand still.

  14. I am a convert, but I have to tell you that I was NEVER scandalized by the Crusades. I’ve always been far more offended by those who apologize for the Crusades while gleefully celebrating wars that defend those things that they truly value as holy, whether that be the right to pornography or anything touching the great god Mammon.

  15. Of course, I think we should be clear about the fact that most of those who promote the myths about the Crusades are doing so in bad faith. They typically want to hold the Crusades up as an example of why religion should be kept out of politics and marginalized in the public sphere. Hence, even though the Crusades are unremarkable from a military and historical perspective, they are treated by secularists as some kind of unique historical singularity, some kind of extraordinarily bad and evil event which serves to prove once and for all the religion is evil and dangerous. It is pure, straightfoward, ideologically driven mendacity. It is also used by contemporary liberals such as Nicholas Kristoff as a way of drawing a facile moral equivalence between Christianity and Islam. “Sure, muslims kill and continue to kill lots of people but Christians once did too. See! No difference!” Again, it is just undiluted mendacity.

  16. Re: Inquisition

    There has been (thanks in part to Mr. Google) a tremendous amount of modern scholarship regarding both the Crusades and the Royal Inquisition of Spain. One of the best short summaries of the Spanish Inquisition can be found (in of all places) the History’s Channels presentation on this subject which claims in part:

    During a period of 350 years throughout the entire Spanish Empire the Inquisition handed over about 5,000 twice condemned heretics to the secular arm with the request that it be merciful of which about half, 2,500. were executed by the State.

    Although IMO 2,500 executions are 2,500 too many this is far cry from the 90-MILLION of which the Catholic Church is frequently accused under Queen Isabella alone.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  17. Monsignor, thanks a million! This is wonderful!! I, too, wish I had been taught this in school.

  18. I often think that when someone attacks the Church for the crusades that had they not happened our discussion would run more along the lines of which of us was going to make our pilgrimage to Mecca first.

  19. I’m all for de-mystifying motives for and context of the Crusades. So the articles and this post are helpful. Like most events in history, I do not perceive the Crusades to be an unblemished “good” – just as I do not see the previous conquest by (what you refer to as) Muslims to be all “bad”.

    What I find utterly pointless are the comparisons of numbers killed to more recent periods of violence. It has no bearing on the reality of the Crusades if Hitler killed 100 or 100 million people, or if he was an athiest or a Christian. We need to examine the Crusades for what they were, and form judgments based on the cultures, norms, and practices of the times in question.

    1. Not sure if you’re referring to me or others. But my point isn’t numbers so much as to answer the atheist claim that more people have died in the name of religion that for any other thing. The implication is that atheist philosophies are not deadly like theist ones. And thus the point is that many have died at the hands of secular and atheist philosophies too, and not a few.

  20. Monsignor–

    Do you envision a future where another crusade against Islam would be necessary? It seems that Christians at the time of the Crusade were certainly justified in their actions. Compare this to the assault by Islam today against Christians in the West. Many Islamic extremists’ sentiments seem to be on par with the conquering Muslims described above.

    1. Just in response to Eric, before any thought be given to a ‘new crusade’ we might first consider how many ‘Christian armies’ are currently in Muslim lands and compare that with how many Muslim armies are currently in Christian lands. Although I can’t say for certain, I doubt our present Pope would diverge too far from out late Pope’s view. As I understand it, I believe our late Pope’s view was contained in the letter he sent to president Bush prior to the invasion of Iraq (which he failed to read).

      1. Lets not pretend they are christian armies. They fight on behalf of a godless system, raised on secular materialism, and accountable to nothing but the sovereignty of the majority. Right or wrong, there is nothing christian about those wars. The west is fully post christian.christian about

        1. Whoops! Somehow I missed Jay’s largely identical response. I’ll blame the hour and bid you good night!

      2. Perhaps more to the point is the fact that there are no Christian armies without the quote marks you inserted. Anywhere. There are armies of lands that were once meaningfully Christian, and there are some armed groups associated with quasi-Christian cults, but that’s about it.

        1. Ray, Howard, I agree entirely with you. I failed to convey same by use of quotation marks on Christian. I would however imagine that from the perspective of an inhabitant of any of the occupied nations that they would not understand the same.

          I neglected to mention how much I enjoyed reading this piece and also the follow up comments.

          1. The majority of the participants in the Crusades were French. The French don’t even go to Church anymore, so they certainly will not be going on any Crusades.

          2. Considering that the elites of European nations are increasingly marginalizing and even harassing serious Christians if they do protect Christians, it will not be because they are Christians, but because they retain the idea that no one should be killed because of their religious beliefs.

            And they may leave them high and dry, and portray the violence as having been caused by Christians, if the way the mainstream news reports world event now is any indication–for already we see this very often in coverage of persecution of Christians worldwide. With an alarming frequency, mainstream tv and web news outlets portray unprovoked attacks on Christians as “sectarian violence” as if it were mutual, or even the Christians’ fault!

          3. If the élites are actually persecuting serious Christians, it is actually a popular movement, like one writer says the First Crusade was against Muslim rulers.

            The fact is that if the élites of Europe had had their way throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is difficult to see what they would have done to the atheistic urban masses who emerged in a spontaneous way with the industrialisation of each European nation.

            Marxism is frequently compared to Islam because of its preaching of violence against its enemies, but unlike Islam, Marxism with its preaching of an egalitarian classless society won over the working masses of Europe as soon as they formed. Once it had done that, the future of Europe’s still-Christian ruling classes – as their source of wealth in Europe’s exceptionally fertile soils lost its value due to the discovery of artificial fertilisers permitting farming on much less fertile but vastly cheaper land in Australia and Africa – was always tenuous at best.

  21. Somewhere in my recent reading (forgive my weak memory – I can’t footnote this), I read that in spite of the mutual excommunications of Rome and Constantinople, Urban II still felt duty-bound to come to the aid of fellow Christians whose lives were threatened by the advance of Islam’s armies. He made it very clear that since Christianity came out of the East, Western Christianity owed a debt to Eastern Christianity, and he wanted to discharge the debt. No, it didn’t work out as neatly as Pope Urban may have wished, but greed was not one of the motives for the Crusades.

  22. Re: On Crusades and Just War

    “I do not perceive the Crusades to be an unblemished “good”.”

    The Church teaches that men and nations have, under certain conditions, the right; and sometimes even the duty, to defend themselves by force of arms. However a just cause does not guarantee that all men enlisted under ist banner act justly. Original sin does not take a holiday during war time.

    No war is an unblemished good. WW II the so-called “good war” saw, among other things, the nuclear and fire bombing of innocents which led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands. And the slaughterers in this instance were the good guys.

    To hold the Crusades to a higher standard of good than other wars is both unjust and unkind to the memories of the Crusaders.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  23. Modern Crusades

    “Do you envision a future where another crusade against Islam would be necessary?”

    In many of the the major cities of Europe there are more active Mosques than active Christian Churches. In France, eldest daughter of the Church, more Muslims go to Mosque every week than Catholics attend Holy Mass. There is no longer a Christendom for Crusaders to defend. Catholics, in full communion with the Bishop of Rome,often have more in common with devout Muslims than with the West’s neo-pagan elites.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

  24. Much of the ancient world was a harsh and violent place and politics was just as complicated then as it is now. The Crusades (and inquisition) are often sensationalized due to the influences of Protestant polemics against the Church and Enlightenment polemics against religion in general (NB: Every well-educated person in the Medieval Period believed that the Earth is round). It is also important not to idealize the Medieval Period uncritically and not to accept simplistic views of, for example, Islamic theology.

  25. Monsignor,

    Great article. I watched a program on the History Channel last night about the Crusades. You are so right when you say…”Many use unnuanced and hyperbolic charges in an attempt to destroy faith in others, or discredit faith in general”. That’s what the History Channel did last night! They revise history on a regular basis. Thanks for setting the record straight.

  26. Monsignor, thank you so much for this post. Even though my personal reading covered many of the pieces of what you’ve put together here I never did make many of the connections before now.
    Also; not too unlike R in Indiana and Restless Pilgrim I wouldn’t mind seeing something on the Inquisition. It may never be justified but a number like 5,000 condemned over 350 years, with half the executions not carried out on grounds of mercy, shows a somewhat different picture than the ravings I’ve heard from so many Catholic bashers.
    Fair is fair, right.

  27. the real lesson of the crusades (and the times leading up to them) is this:
    the Christian Lord has no problem letting his people get run over by the disciples of the moon god.
    remember that when you think God will protect you.

  28. 100 million killed by atheist/materialist communists would be bad enough. Add in 55 million slaughtered children in the womb in the us alone. Add in every other country, I think its safe to say the godless are far more adept at mass murder. It also proves that man doesn’t need an external reason to move him to violence.

  29. Great post!
    Rodney Stark wrote a great book on the crusades: “God’s Battallions: The Case for the Crusades.” (If someone has already mentioned it somewhere above, my apologies) He debunks the misconceptions and also explains where they came from. He also doesn’t glamorize anything. The Middle Ages were a brutal age in Europe and elsewhere, but it was also an age of great faith and the people of the time did struggle with these extremes and were very much concerned with their salvation. Out of this historical context Stark describes the ever-increasing threat the muslim empire posed to Christian Europe and the need to respond.

    1. Stark’s book is a good introduction to the topic. Thomas Madden and Jonathan Riley-Smith have wrtten more scholarly, but still accessible, single-volume histories of the Crusades. Riley-Smith is the leading historian on what motivated the Crusaders and has several books on that subject.

      My favorite book on the First Crusade is Victory in the East — A Military History of the First Crusade. Thomas Asbridge’s The First Crusade is also very good.

  30. I have to laugh if anyone brings something like the Crusades up as an attack on the Church. Unfortunately the average person has no concept of history and probably could not state the main combatants of the Second World War let alone the reasons for the Crusades. There is a good app called “A4C” or “Answers for Catholics”, which has a lot of factual ammunition to answer these sorts of attacks.

    I also get a chuckle when, if an atheist is told what about Mao, Stalin etc. the usual response is “oh but they were practicing a type of religion”, or similar response. So I say to the atheist then, yes well with that logic I can say that when the Crusaders were doing all those really bad things you say they did they were not practicing their religion but practicing secular values like power, materialism etc.

  31. Let us not forget the final great Muslim invasion of the West, the siege of Vienna in 1683, Think of the consequences if that battle had been lost!!! Thank God for the Polish King, John Sobieski and the other Catholic monarchs that put their kingdoms at stake to win that battle. Remember also at the beginning of that battle, the Balkans were completely under Muslim control. After it, the great counter offensive led by Prince Eugene rolled the Turks back to Serbia. We are still suffering the effects of the Turkish,(read Islam) conquest of the Balkans in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

  32. Msgr. Pope very informative posting. Exploring Four Myths About the Crusades is very interesting to me. When I was in Iraq in 2007-08 I was discussing politics with a local sheik and he mentioned the reason Al Qaeda hated the United States was because the USA was responsible and facilitating the Crusades (among other things). No matter what I did to explain that the USA did not exist at the time he was not convinced. I had a similar experience in Afghanistan; many Afghans believe the reason the United States was attacked on 9/11 was because we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq first. Thought that was worth sharing…

  33. msgr. Pope,

    peace and all good!

    I am always reading your blogs here. you’re a precious gift of the Archdiocese of Washington because you are well informed with our Catholic faith and tradition. I am a seminarian here in the philippines and I am now a 3rd year theology student at Mother of Good Counsel Seminary, Graduate School of Theology, Del Pilar, City of San Fernando, Pampanga. this blog of yours concerning exploring the four myths abouth the crusades is very enlightening and informative. may God bless your ministry. msgr. please include me in your prayers so that someday like you I may become a good and holy priest.

    In Christ,

    Sem. Ricarthy D. Macalino
    3rd year theology student
    Mother of Good Counsel Seminary
    Graduate School of Theology
    De;l Pilar, City of San Fernando, Pampanga

  34. this is a great and very informative article …. please keep on informing us like this kind of writing thanks so much
    msgr. Pope

  35. Thank you for this article, Msgr Pope. I attended a Bible class earlier this year and in one of our discussions, I I mentioned about Catholics needing to learn more about the crusades. Almost everyone looked at me like I came from Mars! Even Christians (and most Catholics) believe and submit to these myths without any desire to be enlightened.

  36. As far as blemished/unblemished good, etc… I think for a lot of Christians who are uncomfortable with the Crusades the problem is this: they might be ok with just wars when fought by secular powers, but they sincerely believe that the Church should never be involved in invoking or promoting or calling for war, because of Jesus’ teachings on turning the other cheek, offering no resistance to the evildoer, etc.

    These folks sincerely believe that these teachings apply to nations as well as individuals, since armies and govts are made up of individuals, who are required to follow Christ’s teachings whether they work for the govt or not. Other people argue that Christ’s teachings do not forbid nations from fighting just wars or from citizens from participating. THAT is a long debate.

    So when it comes to the middle ages, fact is the Church and state were so intertwined in Europe that it’s not as clear a line as it might be today!

    My point is that not everyone who speaks against the Crusades is motivated by malice, though many are!

  37. What about eastern europe? Did the pagans provoke crusades there? Or are we pretending that never happened?

    1. What do you mean by Eastern Europe? What happened there? When? If you are going to make a statement, please kindly give your entire argument!

  38. great article, Msgr Pope!
    “One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.”

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