Considering the Crusades in the Context of the Current Conflict with Radical Islamists


Recent and persistent attacks by radical Muslims, especially the most recent beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians, have many asking what can or should be done to end such atrocities. Military actions by numerous countries, including our own, are already underway. Most feel quite justified in these actions and many are calling for more concerted efforts to eliminate ISIS and related zealots who seem to know no pity, no reason, and no limits. I do not write here to opine on the need for or limits on military action. I only point to the “just war” teaching of the Church as a guide for such actions. Obviously, there is a clear and present threat that needs to be repulsed, even with force.

But perhaps, too, given our present experiences, we should not be so quick to condemn the similar outrage and calls for action that came from Christians of the Middle Ages, who also suffered widespread atrocities. The Crusades were a reaction to something very awful and threatening, something that needed to be forcefully repulsed. Many if not most of the great saints from that period called for Crusades, preaching them and supporting them. This includes the likes of St. Bernard, St. Catherine of Sienna, and St. Francis of Assisi.

Seldom are historical events identical to present realities. But our current experiences give us a small taste of what Christians, from the 8th century through the Middle Ages, experienced. Their response need not be seen as sinless or wholly proper. Armed conflict seldom ends without atrocities, a good reason to set it as the very last recourse. Most popular presentations of the Crusades are arguably more influenced by anti-Catholic bigotry than historical fact.

With all this in mind, I’d like to look at the Crusades using excerpts from an article by Paul Crawford, published a few years back at First Principles, entitled, Four Myths About the Crusades. In the excerpts that follow, his text is in bold, black italics, while my comments are in plain red text. The full text of his excellent, though lengthy article can be read by clicking the link above.

For a longer treatment of this subject, please see Steve Weidenkopf’s book  The Glory of the Crusades, recently published at Catholic Answers.

For now, let’s examine Crawford’s article and detail four myths of the Crusades:

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. Today, 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 it 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 motives of every individual solider cannot be perfectly controlled.

The bottom line remains that conducting a crusade was a lousy way to get rich or to 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, such concepts ARE difficult for modern Westerners to believe. Since we are so secular and cynical, the thought of spiritual motives strikes 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. 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 they do 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, this is the strange, self-loathing tendency of the dying West to 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 defend the Church’s and the Christian West’s series of Crusades vehemently. There are 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 to those secularists and atheists who love to point out “how many have died as a result of religious wars and violence,” I say, “Recall how many died in the 20th century for secular ideological reasons.” English historian Paul Johnson, 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 violence, war, conquest,  and territorial disputes are human problems not necessarily or only religious ones. Our current sufferings at the hands of radical Muslims show the problem with simply doing nothing. Life is complex; not all decisions are perfect or precisely carried out. Lord, help us, and by miracle convert our enemies.

Painting: The Preaching of the Crusades from Wikipedia Commons

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

21 Replies to “Considering the Crusades in the Context of the Current Conflict with Radical Islamists”

  1. Great article! Thomas Madden is another good historian on the subject. The only thing I would add is that the Fourth Crusade very much fell into the hands of greedy and sinful men but that was more the exception than the rule. And I completely agree that anti-Catholic bias colors the way the Crusades are portrayed.

    1. It’s anti-Christian bias, not Catholic bias. I work at a small private Christian school in Baton Rouge that are proudly called the Crusaders. I pray it will ever be so!

  2. On the Riddleblog website which is by Kim Riddlebarger of the White Horse Inn, he posted a lecture by a Westminster professor Dr. Godfrey on the Crusades.

    The lecture was poorly done and I posted my comments in defense of the Crusades. If folks get a spare minute, they can google the Riddleblog by Kim Riddlebarger for my comments.

    It is very typical Reformed stuff, once they go back beyond 500 years they know very little about church history.

  3. It’s a good thing they have those relics on video because ISIS will be demolishing them just as soon as they get there.

  4. Very interesting and informative post, thank you Father.
    With your permission I would very much like to reproduce it on my blog ‘umblepie’. I would of course give full acknowledgement to yourself and your blog-site.
    Thank you.
    Brian Crowe

  5. Thank You Msgr. I never had a good take on the history of the crusades. Even in my Catholic school it was a subject only to be noted and forgotten.

    How easily we forget our own history and buy into the “popular” ideologies. When did we get so cowardly? Probably when our materialism grew beyond our spirituality, when we decided we had too much to lose. Those things we “owned” that we could see and touch began to own us. We gave up the life that was given to us by God. We sold our birthright for a few trinkets.

    Now we have to earn it back.

  6. Thank you for this excellent historical overview, Monsignor.

    ” . . .it is difficult because some of them, such as the Mohammedans and the pagans, do not agree with us in accepting the authority of any Scripture, by which they may be convinced of their error. Thus, against the Jews we are able to argue by means of the Old Testament, while against heretics we are able to argue by means of the New Testament. But the Muslims and the pagans accept neither the one nor the other. We must, therefore, have recourse to the natural reason, to which all men are forced to give their assent. However, it is true, in divine matters the natural reason has its failings.”–St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, Chapter 2, Section 3

    Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!

  7. The Glory of the Crusades by Steve Weidenkopf is excellent! Well documented. Also Seven Lies About Catholic History by Diane Moczar deals with the subject of the crusades in chapter three.

  8. Thank you for kindly posting excerpts from my article, Msgr. Pope (for the second time, I think)!

    One comment, regarding people who have died “as a result of war.”

    St. Augustine wrote that not one single person has ever died solely because of war, who would not otherwise have died. That’s a rather startling claim–at least I was startled when I read it first!–but when one thinks about it, one realizes Augustine is correct. Death comes to us all. War may bring it sooner than otherwise, and it may be bring it in a more horrific form than otherwise (although not having ever undergone death myself, I guess I’m not qualified to say how horrific it is or isn’t).

    But war, in and of itself, does not lead to any more deaths than would have happened. We all die. And if we die in the service of a good cause, at least our deaths have some value. Catholics would argue that they even have merit.

    Humbert of Romans, vicar-general of the Dominicans in the 13th c., suggested that in the case of deaths on the Christian side of the crusades, at least, “by this kind of death people make their way to heaven who perhaps would never reach it by another road,” because they died sacrificing themselves to defend the faith and to defend other Christians (like the 21 poor Copts we read about in the news this past week). And he wrote that “the aim of Christianity is not to fill the earth but to fill heaven.”

    Startling, even shocking, sentiments, to the modern mind at least. But it’s hard to argue with the logic of them.

  9. How funny it is to me that when the story is told, the Muslims fought the Roman Empire and gained territory. It is portrayed as morally and politically neutral. But when the inhabitants of the former Roman Empire struck back, it is described as a brutal merciless religious war by Catholics against a peaceful people (the Muslims). Wonder who’s actually writing the history.

  10. A complicating factor in the Islamist conquest of North Africa was the Arian heresy which had weakened the intellectual and social cohesion of the Christian churches. Hilaire Belloc observes that the social and political fabric of North Africa and the east—once solidly Christian–was exhausted and quite vulnerable to conquest. Islam provided liberation for the long beleaguered slaves and debtors and farmers, so long as they converted to Islam. The Islamists seized large chunks of Arian territory that had only recently been reclaimed by the Christian emperor, Justinian. Belloc also seems to suggest that Islam is actually a Christian heresy related to Arianism. In other words, it was a corrupt Christianity infected by heresy that was conquered by yet another Christian heresy.

  11. The immense suffering of our brother Christians in the Arab world is a tragic result of foolish Anglo-American foreign policy decisions.

    The English and the Americans stood by and did nothing to support their former ally, Hosni Mubarak, when he was overthrown in Egypt and they worked actively to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi from Lybia and, of course, Saddam Hussein from Iraq, a war which has likely cost at least a trillion dollars. While these three leaders were hardly good men, they were secularists who kept the radical Islamists in their countries under control through fear. They protected ethnic and religious minorities. Saddam even had Chaldean Catholics in senior governmental positions.

    With these three leaders gone, radical Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Ansar al Islam, Al Qaeda and, of course, ISIL have had free rein and Arab Christians have suffered as a result.

    The failure of Anglo-American policy in the Middle East shows that foreign policy decisions need to be made with intelligent thought, not just emotion or sentiment. Any further Western incursions in the Middle East should occur only after serious thought is given as to whether such incursions will help or hurt the region’s Christians and other minorities.

  12. When in 1095 Pope Urban II called for a war against the Seljuk Turks and insisted that Christ commanded the princes to wage it, he likened the Seljuk Turks to Amalekites.

    This is important, because a war for the extermination of the Amalekites is the only one in Scripture which is holy on the basis of a legal rule which is of permanent force. Amalek aims to blot out all remembrance of the name of Israel under heaven and he hungers for genocide against Jews and Christians.

    That is why the Kings of Israel who succeed David on his throne have the gravest duty before God to annihilate this enemy.

    1. I am not familiar with the actual words used by Pope Urban to which you refer, but I think that your expressed sentiment–‘extermination of the Amalekites….is of permanent force’–which you seem to think constitutes a ‘duty before God,’ is wrong.

      St. Paul didn’t go around suggesting the extermination of anyone, Amalekites or any other historical enemies of the Jewish people. Foremost among said enemies were the Samaritans, where the gospel quickly went to be preached and where much fruit before God was harvested. St. Paul converted people whenever possible.

      We are also supposed to convert Muslims, ideally. I think that is one of the reasons why Cardinal Bergoglio chose the name Francis, missionary to the Saracens.

      I am not disagreeing with the idea that war is sometimes necessary but to categorize an entire race as you have is not in accordance with the gospel’s respect for human cultures and the people that constitute them.

  13. The critics of the Crusades point to events such as the sacking of Jerusalem and Constantinople but who would condemn the Western Allies’ fight against the Nazis and the Japanese just because of Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The Western Allies were not motivated by a desire to kill women, children and old people and neither were the Crusaders. As to the idea that religion is the chief cause of violence have a look at Joe Heschmeyer’s recent article at Shameless Popery.

  14. One of the little understood reactions to Muslim conquest was the Spanish Inquisition.

    While barbaric to modern eyes, it helps to remember two things: 1) taqiyya 2) The Muslim conquest and occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. The Iberian peninsula saw a great deal of war, was almost entirely conquered by Islamic forces, and was occupied by same for an extended period of time.

    It took nearly 700 years to retake the peninsula, and establish the Catholic Spanish Monarchy.

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