Efforts to reform medieval institutional Christianity in the West gave rise to two tragic historical developments. In this entry we will cover one of them, the Crusades—military campaigns against perceived non-believers, waged under the banner of the Christian cross, and in many cases with the blessing of the pope.
The tone of the crusades was set by the first one (1096–1099) launched by Pope Urban II at the request in 1095 Emperor Alexios I Komnenos for military aid from Urban II to fight the Turks, who had captured Niceae. Urban’s cry of Deus vult (Latin for “God wills it”) set the stage for a series of murderous battle campaigns, skirmishes and sheer religious vigilantism called Crusades.
Everything that happened in that first campaign after had the best of the “good” Crusades, meaning limited and defined goals and an organized military campaign. Unfortunately, the misguided papal call, intended to whip up sentiment to support Christian princes into saving the cradle of the creed from nonbelievers, led to the worst of the “bad” Crusades.
Having no warring Muslims or heathen hordes at hand, some 20,000 people, mostly peasants, led by Peter the Hermit, set off into the first major outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in Europe when they arrived in Germany, called the Rhineland massacres. These went from limited, spontaneous violence to full-scale military attacks on Jewish communities in Speyer, Worms, Mainz and Cologne.
The subsequent crusades, and campaigns such as the reconquest of Spain, retroactively dubbed a “crusade” of sorts, has all the elements of the first. Historians still debate exactly how many of these campaigns there were, from the traditional four to as many as eight or more.
Indeed, the very brutal eventual suppression of the Albigensians, or Cathari, in southern France and northern Italy, in which St. Dominic became unwittingly entangled was called a crusade—from it emerged another misguided institution, the Inquisition, of which we shall speak later.
They were the mildly justifiable efforts to protect from an externally hostile world a society purportedly organized among the lines proposed by the wisdom of Christianity. Then, also, they were the excuse for the most horrible of human traits to emerge under cover of divine sanction. Their detailed history is ably documented elsewhere by scholars.
All were more or less just as bloody given that they were fought in an age in which, given the absence of explosives, war was very much a hand to hand combat to the death in which one contender ended up soaked in the blood of the other. To say that the Crusades were awful because they involved brutality is simply to ignore that all armed conflict at that time, indeed today, was and is brutal.
The real question is: how to square following the Galilean who said “blessed are the peacemakers” and crowned love as the highest virtue with tearing each other to pieces in an institutionalized carnage called war? It is not enough to pop out the “just war” theory (whose development within Christianity was associated with the Crusades).
It is particularly timely, in an era in which the West finds itself in conflict with radical Muslim jihadism, to recall from the Christian viewpoint, the grave error in calling any armed conflict a “crusade,” as President George W. Bush did in 2001 and many before him.
At the heart of all crusades was an effort to locate the power of God, of the universe, of all that is beyond us, in a place called the Holy Land, merely because it is the locale of the biblical Israel and Judah, the prophets and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. There is something oddly dissonant about fighting ultimately to control a city historically revered by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, a place whose very name Yerushalem (Jerusalem) means Mount of Peace.
It is also remarkable folly in the most pedestrian sense of the word. One of the post-9/11 comments I deem the most historically lucid on this subject is that of novelist John Le Carré. Days after Bush committed the error of calling for a new “crusade” after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Le Carré reminded anyone willing to listen of the historical fact that the Christians lost the Crusades.
Certainly, even in the “crusades” deemed a historical military victory, such as in Spain’s momentous recapture of Granada in 1492, the Christian faith lost whenever men took up arms in its name.