The Crimes of the Crusaders

by Graham Veale

Whenever a Christian suggests that morality is impossible without God, or that Christianity might have been beneficial for society, some secularist will reflexively object that the Crusades have demonstrated that this cannot be so.  Put aside the fact that no-one is seriously contending that everything done in the name of Christ is true to his message. Never-mind that the Christian was merely arguing that theism offers the best explanation of moral facts, and not that there can be no morality without the Church. It is just too easy to portray the Crusaders as mediaeval Nazi’s. Consider Steven Pinker’s historical analysis:

Crusader armies were mobilised to fight a “just war” to retake Jerusalem form Muslim Turks, earning them remission of sins and a ticket to heaven. They massacred Jewish communities on the way, and after besieging and sacking Nicea, Antioch, Jerusalem and Constantinople, they slaughtered their Muslim and Jewish populations. Rummel estimates the death toll at 1 million. The world had around 400 million people at the time, about a sixth of the number in the mid-20th century, so the death toll of the Crusader massacres as a proportion of the world’s population would today come out at around 6 million, equivalent to the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews (The Better Angels of Our Nature, p.140).

There are several problems here, none of them minor. Set aside the fact that Pope Urban II had to abandon just war theory to defend his vision of a Holy War. In the above passage, Pinker conflates the “People’s Crusade” led by Peter the Hermit, the First Crusade and the Fourth Crusade. This gives the impression that the First Crusade was a murderous, bloodthirsty hoard bent on nothing short of genocide. We need not approve of the means and ends of the Crusaders to point out that this is little more than a caricature. The Crusaders were brutal, and often callous, warriors – so were their opponents and allies – but they were not 11th Century Nazis.

By comparing the Crusaders to Nazi’s, Pinker gives the impression that the death toll of the crusades was made up entirely of the Crusader’s victims. In fact, Crusading was extremely hazardous to one’s health. As many as  a third of the aristocrats who set out on Crusade, and 80% of their followers, never returned (Christopher Tyerman,  The Crusades: A Very Brief Introduction, p.103). It remains very difficult to give a good estimate of deaths caused in battle, however, because logistical difficulties caused many deaths through starvation; civilians tended to flee from cities and towns in the paths of the opposing armies; and armies on both sides suffered from high rates of desertion.

Pinker’s estimate of 1 million dead is based on a figure given by the political scientist RJ Rummel; Rummel’s methodology is not explained. In any case, this estimate seems exaggerated and unsound. In his acclaimed history The Crusades Thomas Asbridge explains the difficulties historians have estimating the numbers involved in the Crusades “primarily because of the unreliability of wildly inflated contemporary estimates” (p.42).

Consider the fall of Jerusalem to the first Crusade in 1099…

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The Crimes of the Crusaders – Saints and Sceptics