Re-Thinking the Crusades

The History Channel reminds us that on this date in 1095, Pope Urban II ordered the First Crusade. Prior to 1979 it was more difficult than it is today to imagine such a thing, a leader of a world religion ordering a military crusade to conquer territory in the name of God and for the well-being of its inhabitants. It’s not hard for us to imagine such a thing now because we all live after 9/11 and after the Iranian revolution in which Muslim radicals overthrew the Shah and instituted a theocracy and began supporting global jihad. The roots of this movement ultimately go back to the very founding of Islam but more proximately to the rise of Muslim radicalism that reacted to colonialism and Modernity in the 19th century.

Prior to 1979, however, it was a little more difficult to imagine what the Western (and the Eastern) church did during the Crusades. It’s a little ironic that the best modern analogy is Islamic jihad (a crusade for a principle that includes holy war against infidels) but historically the two are connected in a surprising way. In contrast to the way the story is told by the History Channel, the reality was a little more complicated.

The crusades were a series of expeditions from Western Europe to the Mediterranean from 1095 to 1291 (though there were several expeditions after 1291 on the pattern of the Crusades). The term “crusade” is a modern term. It is related to the Latin word for “cross” (crux) and derives from crucesignati, i.e., “to take the sign of the cross.” When crusaders went, they wore the sign of, or rode under the banner of the cross.

Since the Enlightenment, the crusades have most often been described as a violent, colonial expansion of the West into the east, a land grab. On this see Thomas F. Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades, updated edition (Lanham et al: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 1). This view of the crusades was promulgated by Voltaire (d. 1778), Hume (d. 1776), Diderot (d. 1784), and Gibbon (d. 1794) and probably became the standard church historical explanation via Mosheim’s (d. 1755) influential English-language volume. On this see Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (NY: HarperCollins, 2009), 1-7).

It is widely held that there were three objects:

  1. to recover Jerusalem from Islam
  2. to defend the West against the rise of the Ottoman Empire
  3. to acquire land

It is said by modern historians that the crusaders were social flotsam and jetsam. There is evidence now, however, that the aristocracy who went, did so at considerable personal cost. They had to maintain their household back home and pay for an entourage on the trip; it all cost 5-6 times their annual income; they mortgaged the future to go.

Rodney Stark and Thomas Madden have argued a revisionist view, that the Crusades were (at least partly) a reaction to Islamic expansionism. This view is omitted by some major treatments of the crusades. Augustine had articulated a “just war” theory, but according to Madden the early Christians did not have a doctrine of holy war. That only developed after the collapse of the Roman empire and after the rapid spread of Islam in the 7th century. Islam had a concept of Jihad or holy war. Those who died in a Jihad were said to be martyrs. Madden argues that “expansionism working hand-in-hand with jihad had become an important component in the Muslim world view.” (Madden, ibid, 7–8).

In this regard, one of Stark’s more provocative claims, following Henri Pierrene (1939), is that it was not the collapse of Rome or Christianity per se but the Islamic invasions that cut off Europe from trade and created essentially a Great Depression creating an economic decline by pushing European economies backward. He argues that the sophisticated lslamic culture often described by survey texts was actually stolen capital.

By the 8th century, Muslim forces were threatening Christian Europe, stopped finally, and driven back to Spain by Charles Martel in 732. It was in dealing with Muslims in Spain, the Christian notion of a holy war took root in the West. That notion became combined with idea of the pilgrimage. As you may know, every church and certainly every cathedral came to claim to have relics of the Savior, the BVM, or the apostles. In the 9th century, the bones of St James were allegedly discovered at Santiago de Compostello. The cult of St James flourished. There had already been a pattern of pilgrimages to the Holy Lands as a penance. This was all part of a growing devotion to the life of Christ and the quest to re-enact the stations of the cross. (On relics see these posts: Has the Roman doctrine of Justification Changed? and Canonization, Saints, and Christ Our Only Mediator. See also Calvin’s Treatise on Relics).

Talk began to grow not only of the reconquista of Christian lands, but of the “Holy Lands.” By the 11th century the Seljuk Turks (Muslim, but not Arab) conquered Armenia, Syria, and Palestine. The Arabs had tolerated Christians, but the Turks destroyed some of the Christian churches in Jerusalem, murdered clergy, and captured pilgrims. There wasn’t much money to be made from Christian pilgrims, so persecution lessened but the trip to Jerusalem remained very dangerous because of political instability.

In 1071, the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV (d. 1071) led forces against the Turk in Asia Minor. The Turks defeated the Byzantine army and captured the emperor. The chessboard came to life—checkmate.

Despite the East’s suspicion of and theological hostility toward the West Alexius I Comnenus (d. 1118) made a strategic alliance with the W. for the sake of defending Byzantium against the Turks. Pope Gregory VII (d. 1085) saw their need as an opportunity to restore stability to Europe (after the Vikings etc) and to potentially re-assert papal sovereignty over Byzantine Christians.

By 1095, Urban II’s position was considerably strengthened. When Alexius I asked for help in that year Urban II was in position to give it. In standard accounts, Urban’s sermon, a call for a crusade, outside the Cathedral in Clermont, in 1095, is regarded as the beginning of the crusades.

About 150,000 Europeans went on crusades. Most were poor or female or elderly or all three! In the 1st crusade 40,000 men went. A small minority were knights. Few stayed in Palestine. The land captured was to go to the Byzantine Emperor. Whatever the material benefits, there were supposed to be spiritual benefits as well. As pilgrimages became a penance, crusaders were granted a plenary indulgence (for more on indulgences see this post and this post.).

A crusade army was a curious mix of rich and poor, saints and sinners, motivated by every kind of pious and selfish desire, yet it could not have come into being without the pious idealism that led men to risk all to liberate the lands of Christ (Madden, ibid, 13).

Urban II preached the 1st crusade on November 27, 1095 at the Council of Clermont. (Here are five versions of the speech). His sermon was a call to Christian knights to liberate the Byzantine Christians from Muslim oppression. Not only that, but they would continue beyond Constantinople (Istanbul) to the Holy Land. Blood curdling stories were told. Preachers called knights and landed folk to “take up” their cross (hence “crusaders”) and follow Christ.

The Crusades were mostly a failure. Even from a strictly military point of view only one was successful and that success did not last very long. Some of the Crusades were detoured from their original purpose and did even more damage to the relations between the Eastern and Western churches. On balance they cannot be thought to have been wise or helpful.

Certainly, in our era of renewed engagement with Islam (even if it is forced upon us by violence), we should appreciate how the image of “the crusader” is used against the West generally and Christians particularly. When I began teaching at Wheaton College (1995) one of my colleagues mentioned his, um, crusade to get the name of the school mascot changed from “Crusaders.” My first reaction was to scoff but over the years I’ve come to see that he was right. The word “Crusader” doesn’t mean much to us because we don’t repeat horror stories from the 11th and 12th centuries but in some cultures they do. Thus, when Western Christians arrive in the Middle East innocently wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “Crusaders” it unintentionally sends the wrong message.

Christians are not crusaders but we are called to carry the cross. When Our Lord Jesus said  “take up your cross and follow me” he called us not to conquer lands for him militarily but to put to put to death our sinful nature (on this see Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 43) and, sometimes, even to be crucified for him (as happened in the early church). That’s a simple but really important point as we think about how to engage an ever increasingly suspicious and hostile culture.


Some of what the History Channel says about the Crusades is correct but, as is often the case, some of what it says is not. As a general rule, if you watch the History Channel: caveat emptor. The job of the History Channel is first of all to gain ratings and to sell advertising. Their job is not, in the first instance, to get things right. It’s a lot more difficult to market ambiguity, disagreement among historians, and nuance than it is to market a straightforward, over-simplified account with 20 minutes of material stretched to fill an hour through teases, commercials, and endless repetition.

Please don’t misunderstand, I enjoy both the History Channel and H2. We can learn from history as entertainment. The Pawn Stars Rick Harrison is not a bad historian—for a guy in the pawn business. He knows what he knows and he (generally) knows where his limits are and calls in an interesting group of experts to evaluate things. Sometimes he gets things wrong and we get to see him make mistakes and be corrected (and lose money on a deal). I sometimes show clips from the show to my seminars to illustrate how to think critically about claims about the past. The clip demonstrating “how to spot a fake rolex” is a good example. The essence of critical thinking is not to take things at face value. It is to question, to scrutinize, to evaluate. In this instance, one has to know what the marks of a genuine Rolex are before one can spot a fake. Hmm, that sounds so familiar (see Belgic Confession Art. 29).

So, enjoy television (or internet) documentaries and history but don’t be buffaloed simply because someone with a PhD or “historian” next to his name makes a claim. It might be true but it might not be true.

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  1. Very informative post. (And thanks for link to Rick Harrison. While you’re at it, since your coiffure is similar to Mr. Harrison’s, have you considered doing a short YouTube on “how to spot a fake historical conclusion”?)

  2. I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for The Crusades for decades. For most of my adult life, I’ve suffered through the standard evangelical/Reformed expression of embarrassment and regret — all shame and extreme negative statements unmixed with any balancing views. Even before I began to read seriously about the subject, I instinctively knew that when unbelievers and Muslims agree completely on a topic against Christians, the real truth must be somewhat different. At last, contemporary scholarship is setting the record straight and looking at the entire movement more objectively.

    Of course, we should never make excuses for the darker aspects of The Crusades such as physical savagery and the terrible, deficient theology that fueled so much Crusade fever. But once you look at the period as a global, geopolitical and military response to the advance of Islam, you begin to see things in an entirely different light. For all its excesses, The Crusades did manage to check the violent expansion of Islam for over two centuries. That’s no small feat, and one for which the Christian West should be thankful (but rarely is, in our politically correct age).

    As a complement to the works by Stark and Madden mentioned above, 0ne “popular” but well-researched and well-written source is Robert Spencer’s “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades)” (Regnery).

    Also look for Paul F. Crawford’s fine short article, “Four Myths About the Crusades” (free online – just search for it).

  3. After re-reading Dr. Crawford’s article again today, I would use it as the first source to begin a lively discussion about The Crusades. (Spring 2011 issue of The Intercollegiate Review.)

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