Some Thoughts on the Crusades

I have -- finally -- finished reading The Crusades, Islam and Christianity in the Struggle for World Supremacy. The book is informative, but not an easy read. It seems that the author includes too many unimportant details, including brief accounts of crusades and participants in efforts to defeat pagan tribes in Europe. He also opted at times a topical rather than chronological approach to his material. Putting aside those issues, the book did a good job of exploring the motives of the Crusades. After reading this book, I better appreciated the mindset of Christendom at the time and that many, probably most, of the Crusaders were moved profoundly to "take the Cross" for religious reasons.

In any event, it is an unflinchingly candid account of the Crusades. The warts of Christians and Muslims are presented, though more time is spent on the Christian ones (probably due to the author's access to sources and his audience). The fairness of the treatment and (usually) nonjudgmental discussion of the motivations and actions of the participants kept me reading despite my stylistic issues.

So I was surprised by a comment in the concluding chapter of the book about the Pope's having apologized for the Crusades:

Recently, the crusades have even been the subject of a formal apology by the Pope. Exactly why is not clear. As yet the world awaits an apology from the Arab world for the aggression of the jihad wars of the seventh and eighth centuries which conquered the Christian lands from Syria to Egypt, and the North African coast from the Christian Roman Empire and the Christian kingdoms of Spain; or from Istanbul for the aggressive conquest of the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire. After all, the armies of the Prophet had no doubt that they were doing the will of Allah by winning these territories from their infidel rulers for the True Religion -- just as the Christian crusaders were to believe that they were fulfilling the will of their God. The crusades then, in Arab eyes ended in a second victory for Islam over Christendom.
Geoffrey Hindley, The Crusades, page 256.

The notion that the crusaders saw themselves as taking the offensive against the Muslim peoples is naive. While there should be no whitewash of the Crusades, the fact is that most of its participants saw it as a defensive effort against an advancing Islamic empire or, at the very least, an effort to regain what rightfully were Christian lands and holy sites.

Another interesting point that Hindley makes is the connection between the Crusades and the Reformation. In particular, it was the Crusades that really introduced the sale of indulgences as Catholic policy. As the need for money mounted, indulgences were expanded to include financiers of the Crusades.

But perhaps the crusades' deepest impact on Western Europe's Christian community was caused by the concept of the indulgence. Probably the most attractive inducement to participation was Pope Urban's Clermont promise that this would be a sufficient substitute for other acts of penance. To the ordinary Christian this meant that provided he went into battle in a state of repentance and had made confession, he could be assured of immediate entry into Paradise.... When Pope Innocent III extended the plenary indulgence for fighting crusaders to those who contributed money or advice to the crusade a dangerous new idea was introduced. Over the centuries, the idea that Christians could shorten the time of sufferings in Purgatory before entering Paradise by the purchase of an official papal indulgence became regularized into a commodity trade like any other. In fact, it became scandalous and attacks on abuse of the system by a cash-hungry Church proved a powerful ingredient in the ferment of criticism of the Roman Catholic Church which would produce the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.
The Crusades, page 237-38.

Another lesson from Hindley's book is that the Crusades feature much more prominently in the modern Arab mind than in the Western mind. Many Arabs see their culture as victimized by the Crusades despite the fact that the Crusades had little impact on the larger Arab world. At the height of Crusader power, they were little more than Latin outposts in the Middle East. Jerusalem was held for less than a hundred years. All Crusader held cities -- which was mostly a small costal strip of land -- were lost within 200 years.

The Crusades probably would not have had any success had the Muslim peoples unified against them. As it was, many Muslim rulers found it useful to ally with the Crusader states against Muslims who they viewed as a bigger threat to their empires. Be that as it may, the fact is that we live in a world where Muslims still repeat stories about Crusader atrocities to their children. And one other affect of this still present perspective is that the Arab nations around Israel view it as a kind of Crusader outpost.

Today, the State of Israel occupies much the same territories as the twelfth-century Kingdom of Jerusalem, and is regarded by the Muslim world as much of a client state to the Western world as was its medieval forerunner to Western Christendom.... Against that enemy, any hostile action -- be it political, military or based on oil -- is considered no more than legitimate vengeance.
The Crusades, page 160.

Update: I just wrote a review for Amazon for this book, here.


Kevin Rosero said…
Thanks for that review, and particularly for the information about indulgences, which was new to me and interesting. I had no idea that indulgences started that way. They seem to me now like merely an institutionalization of something ancient and universal, namely the hunger to achieve immortality/salvation through battle, or simply the belief that battle could win these things. I had previously thought of indulgences exclusively as something quite different -- the means to buy salvation without risk, sacrifice or pain.

Just a question, did the author describe how prominent the Crusades were in Muslim minds, not just now, but at the time?
Layman said…
Interest in Jihads swelled and wained throughout the Crusades. The Muslim leader Saladin proved most adept at channeling interest in Jihad to recapture Jerusalem between the Second and Third Crusades. At other times, Muslims were more interested in fighting each other, such as Turks v. Arabs and Shiite v. Sunni or internal power struggles within various kingdoms. Also, at times there were "barbarian" forces invading Muslim lands which posed much greater threats than the Crusaders ever managed.

There were also periods of cooperation and diplomacy between Crusader and Muslims. Jerusalem was briefly returned to Christian hands as a result of diplomacy on the part of the Holy Roman Emperor. Saladin and King Richard made a deal preserving for a period of years the Crusader cities in the Middle East and allowing Richard's army to complete pilgrimages to Jersualem (Richard himself refused to do so since he had failed to recapture Jerusalem).
Layman said…

As I read him, he's not saying they were invented during the Crusades, but they were popularized to a much greater degree. And he seems quite clear about the nature of the indulgence. It is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Hence, "provided he went into battle in a state of repentance and had made confession, he could be assured of immediate entry into Paradise." Sounds like he's referenced a shortened time--or no time-- in purgatory, not salvation per se. The soldier still has to take care of his own soul.

I think you are overreacting to the article.
Layman said…
Well, I still don't read that line as saying that the concept was invented during the Crusades.

The Crusades are of such monumental historical significance that I think it would be difficult to say they were not connected to the later Reformation.

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