Christians Responsible for Crusades?

So, one of the things that’s mildly annoying about those who like to say “You Christians are responsible for the Crusades…” is that usually there’s a complete lack of familiarity with the history of the Crusades. It’s just something they saw on TV, barely comprehending even that much.  So, here’s a crash course:

First Crusade 1095-1099: The Turks had invaded Anatolia, and the Byzantine Emperor requests military aid to repel the invaders. Pope of Rome responds by requesting volunteers, and eventually sees opportunity to elicit a larger geopolitical goal of recapturing the “Holy Land” – especially Jerusalem. On the way, the Western crusaders set up “kingdoms” for themselves through the Middle East. Jerusalem is recaptured. To the disappointment of the Western crusaders, the Byzantines had much more limited goals (repel invasion), and openly utilized diplomacy to negotiate and settle with the Muslims wherever possible, while the Western crusaders are there to “reconquer the Holy Land” and invade and massacre accordingly. The massacre of Jerusalem is historic, and the “first holocaust” against Jews in Western Europe is inspired by this same effort.

Second Crusade 1144: Muslims capture Edessa. Western saint Bernard of Clairvaux travelled Western Europe asking people to take up arms. No clear goals or leadership. Result is that little came of it except to combine Flemish, Frisian, Norman, English, Scottish, German, and Portuguese crusaders. The Western forces were a super-alliance.

Third Crusade 1189: Muslims had recaptured Jerusalem. Western Europe again mobilizes en masse. Frank emperor Barbarosa dies en route to Jerusalem. Lionhart (England) recaptures several coastal cities, but does not enter Jerusalem. Instead secures a treaty for pilgrims to enter the city.

Fourth Crusade 1202: No clear goals or leadership. Massive Western armies looking for a target, however. Franks and Venetians invade Orthodox Byzantium, systematically desecrated the Byzantine (Orthodox) temples, and looted the products of Byzantine civilization. Vast numbers of the artifacts of civilization (dating from ancient Greece and Rome to modern) in Western Europe actually date from this crusade – both in originals and copies. The Library of Constantinople (last of the great libraries of the Ancient world – successor to the destroyed library of Alexandria) was burned. Schism is regarded as universally permanent from this time on.

One historian writes: “The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art, an emporium of such incredible wealth that the Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered (they were themselves semi-Byzantines) and saved much of it, the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church’s holy vessels. The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople. The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Crusading movement thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.’

Fifth Crusade 1217: Western European monarchies (Hungary and Austria) captured Damietta. The Muslims offered Jerusalem in exchange, but they refused.

Sixth Crusade 1228: Western Europe (led by the Frank Emperor). Ends in negotiated return of Jerusalem.

Seventh & Eighth Crusades 1270: Western Europe (led by King of France). Won but lost Damietta again.

Ninth Crusade 1271: Western Europe (led by King of England). Failed to defeat sultan of Baibers.

“The Children’s Crusade” is an apocryphal series of events and myths dating to 1212, taking place in Western Europe, notably Italy, but amounting to little historical import. Popular versions of these stories still abound.

So here are the points I draw from that history:

  1. While there’s a religious pretext for them, except for the 4th, it’s a mistake to think the Crusades have a primarily religious impetus. The 2nd Crusade failed to get legs precisely because it was purely religious in character. The third Crusade ended in European monarchies fighting over loot.
  2. To take the religious aspect at face value is also to remove the ground of any such argument – after all, how many crusades by atheists (Leninist, Maoist, etc) have been far more brutal and totalitarian? Does this mean that, to be consistent, atheism is to be impugned in general on the basis of those? Every ideology is an opportunity for violence. More recently, it’s “Western Democracy”. Logic demands consistent applicaton of a rule w/o prejudice for one’s own group.
  3. It’s inaccurate to attribute the crusades to only Christian influence. It is precisely a response to the wholesale Muslim invasion of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Africa that the Europeans are responding. You don’t get one w/o the other. In all the rhetoric that “Christians are responsible for the Crusades” one wonders if anyone is left who knows who their opponents were. Ironically, they are the same opponents Europe is fighting as we speak, over the same area of the world as the earlier Crusades. One again, this underscores the point that what you say about “Christians” in the one context, you must concede about “Western Democracy” in the current one, otherwise it’s just a prejudice against religion and not an interest in logical consistency.
  4. It’s inaccurate to attribute the Crusades to some kind of generic “Christianity” – or a “Christianity” in general. We Orthodox not only didn’t participate, except arguably in a nominal way (i.e. we asked for help of the West to drive back a massive invader of our own empire), but we were the victims of the Crusaders’ massacres at least as thoroughly as the Muslims in Jerusalem. In fact, one of the reasons we enraged the Crusaders was that we were not Crusading with them. Rather than invading the Middle East – we were using diplomacy to repel invaders of our own empire where possible, and asking for military assistance where it wasn’t. We were defending our homeland, not trying to dominate Jerusalem. To paint everyone w. a broad brush might be a testiment to the absurd simplicity of some Western intellects, but it’s not the reality of what happened, and it reflects a theological illiteracy akin to saying “you people” to all Asians when referring to the Chinese. It only persists as cute, because the one bigotry and ignorance is more culturally acceptable than the other.

You know, it’s fun for some people to aim their guns at religious adherents, but it’s usually more like a joke about the evening news that gets the facts wrong, so the punchline doesn’t matter.

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