The Real History of the Crusades - Part I

This Sunday, July 15 is the 919th anniversary of the First Crusade’s victory in Jerusalem Few historical events are so misunderstood. Recent decades have, however, pushed back against this misconception. Through new finds and new technology helping to access documents, a different picture emerges – the true one. This article is by Dr. Thomas Madden, one of the foremost scholars of the Crusades. He is chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University and author of A Concise History of the Crusades. We’ll present the article in two parts. Part II will appear in next week’s bulletin.

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The Real History of the Crusades: Part I

by Thomas Madden

 

Image result for Crusades

Many historians had been trying for some time to set the record straight on the Crusades – misconceptions are all too common. These historians are not revisionists, but mainstream scholars offering the fruit of several decades of very careful, very serious scholarship.

Within days of the September 11 attack, the Middle Ages suddenly became relevant….Journalists, editors, and talk-show hosts on tight deadlines eager to get the real scoop asked What were the Crusades? and Just how insensitive was President Bush for using the word "crusade" in his speeches?....I was often asked to comment on the fact that the Islamic world has a just grievance against the West. Doesn't the present violence, they persisted, have its roots in the Crusades' brutal and unprovoked attacks against a sophisticated and tolerant Muslim world? In other words, aren't the Crusades really to blame?

..... Many historians had been trying to set the record straight …They are not revisionists, like the American historians who manufactured the Enola Gay exhibit, but mainstream scholars offering the fruit of several decades of very careful, very serious scholarship. For them, this is a "teaching moment," an opportunity to explain the Crusades while people are actually listening.

Misconceptions about the Crusades are all too common. They are generally portrayed as a series of holy wars against Islam led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics. They are supposed to have been the epitome of self-righteousness and intolerance, a black stain on the history of the Catholic Church in particular and Western civilization in general. A breed of proto-imperialists, the Crusaders introduced Western aggression to the peaceful Middle East and then deformed the enlightened Muslim culture, leaving it in ruins. …See, for example, Steven Runciman's famous three-volume epic, History of the Crusades, or the BBC/A&E documentary, The Crusades, hosted by Terry Jones. Both are terrible history yet wonderfully entertaining.

So what is the truth about the Crusades? Scholars are still working some of that out. But much can already be said with certainty. For starters, the Crusades to the East were in every way defensive wars. They were a direct response to Muslim aggression – an attempt to turn back or defend against Muslim conquests of Christian lands.

Christians in the 11th century were not paranoid fanatics. Muslims really were gunning for them. While Muslims can be peaceful, Islam was born in war and grew the same way. From Mohammed on, the means of Muslim expansion was always the sword. Muslim thought divides the world into two spheres, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War. Christianity and any other non-Muslim religion – has no abode. Christians and Jews can be tolerated within a Muslim state under Muslim rule. But, in traditional Islam, Christian and Jewish states must be destroyed and their lands conquered….

With enormous energy, the warriors of Islam struck out against the Christians shortly after Mohammed's death. They were extremely successful. Palestine, Syria, and Egypt – once the most heavily Christian areas in the world – quickly succumbed. By the 8th century, Muslim armies conquered all of Christian North Africa and Spain. In the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which had been Christian since the time of St. Paul. The old Roman Empire, known to modern historians as the Byzantine Empire, was reduced to little more than Greece. In desperation, the emperor in Constantinople asked the Christians of Western Europe to aid their brothers and sisters in the East.

That is what gave birth to the Crusades. They were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope or rapacious knights but a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point, Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam. The Crusades were that defense.

Next Week: Part II

 

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