Four Myths about the Crusades

by Paul F. Crawford

In 2001, former president Bill Clinton delivered a speech at Georgetown University in which he discussed the West’s response to the recent terrorist attacks of September 11. The speech contained a short but significant reference to the crusades. Mr. Clinton observed that “when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem [in 1099], they . . . proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple Mount.” He cited the “contemporaneous descriptions of the event” as describing “soldiers walking on the Temple Mount . . . with blood running up to their knees.” This story, Mr. Clinton said emphatically, was “still being told today in the Middle East and we are still paying for it.”

This view of the crusades is not unusual. It pervades textbooks as well as popular literature. One otherwise generally reliable Western civilization textbook claims that “the Crusades fused three characteristic medieval impulses: piety, pugnacity, and greed. All three were essential.”1 The film Kingdom of Heaven (2005) depicts crusaders as boorish bigots, the best of whom were torn between remorse for their excesses and lust to continue them. Even the historical supplements for role-playing games—drawing on supposedly more reliable sources—contain statements such as “The soldiers of the First Crusade appeared basically without warning, storming into the Holy Land with the avowed—literally—task of slaughtering unbelievers”;2 “The Crusades were an early sort of imperialism”;3 and “Confrontation with Islam gave birth to a period of religious fanaticism that spawned the terrible Inquisition and the religious wars that ravaged Europe during the Elizabethan era.”4 The most famous semipopular historian of the crusades, Sir Steven Runciman, ended his three volumes of magnificent prose with the judgment that the crusades were “nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.”5

The verdict seems unanimous. From presidential speeches to role-playing games, the crusades are depicted as a deplorably violent episode in which thuggish Westerners trundled off, unprovoked, to murder and pillage peace-loving, sophisticated Muslims, laying down patterns of outrageous oppression that would be repeated throughout subsequent history. In many corners of the Western world today, this view is too commonplace and apparently obvious even to be challenged.

But unanimity is not a guarantee of accuracy. What everyone “knows” about the crusades may not, in fact, be true. From the many popular notions about the crusades, let us pick four and see if they bear close examination.

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.6 Those in Persia were under severe pressure. Two-thirds of the formerly Roman Christian world was now ruled by Muslims…

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First Principles – Four Myths about the Crusades