The Economist Archive

    Religious warriors. Reinterpreting the crusades

INDEX TERMS Riley-Smith, Jonathan|crusades, signed article;"The Economist"|crusades, interpretation, signed article by Jonathan Riley- Smith;History|crusades, signed article by Jonathan Riley-Smith;
DATE 23-Dec-95
WORDS 2987
"Nine hundred years after the first of them was proclaimed, the crusades still resonate - and not just in the Middle East. Jonathan Riley-Smith, professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge University and the author of several books on the crusades," reflects on their changing interpretation


Nine hundred years after the first of them was proclaimed, the crusades still resonate - and nor just in the Middle East. Jonathan Riley-Smith, professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge University and the author of several books on the crusades, reflects on their changing interpretation.

That the crusades continue to fasinate is obvious from the vast number of books, television programmes and films pouring forth around the world. Nor is the fascination merely historical. The crusades helped shape many notions still current in today's world, ranging from concepts of religious violence, through anti-Semitism, to ethnic cleansing. Interpretation of the crusades has also changed to reflect the mood of the times. Once considered as religiously motivated, the crusades later metamorphosed into an early manifestation of European imperialism; they then became a monstrous enterprise, motivated by greed. Now the pendulum has swung back again to favour a religious interpretation.

That was certainly how the First Crusade was presented by Pope Urban II, who proclaimed it on November 27th 1095, in a field outside the French town of Clermont. The event was stage-managed. The pope had wanted nobles to come from across Western Europe to hear his sermon, and the crowd reacted with obviously rehearsed acclamations. Few nobles turned up, and the theatre must have been risky: it was the onset of winter, and the pope was an old man on an arduous preaching tour. Even so, his appeal for knights to liberate Jerusalem struck a chord in western society. Between 1096 and 1101 a succession of armies, their numbers swelled by non-combatant pilgrims, swept into Asia Minor.

The most significant force, comprising perhaps 60,000 people, of whom about 6,000 were knights, came together in June 1097. Two years later some 15,000, of whom 1,500 were knights, took Jerusalem. They had undergone (and inflicted) the most appalling sufferings. They had struck out on their own, with no system of provisioning; during the eight-month siege of Antioch, a region roughly 50 miles around was stripped bare by foraging parties. Within a year of leaving Europe most of the crusaders' horses were dead; more seriously, their pack animals died as well, forcing them to carry their armour in sacks.

Not surprisingly, the crusaders' march was punctuated by moments of blind panic. There was a continuous trickle of deserters. But there was also a growing sense of wonder at their achievement. From the moment they entered Syria, visions in the heavens multiplied. One victory was attributed to an army of angels, saints and the crusaders' dead, which came galloping up on the left flank - significantly, it was horsed - and routed the Muslims. To contemporaries the success of the First Crusade could be explained only by divine intervention.

Urban II could have had no idea that he was starting a movement that would endure for hundreds of years, involve huge numbers of people from all classes and manifest itself in so many different theatres of war - the Spanish Armada of 1588 was an unsuccessful crusade. It is not surprising that events that impinged so directly on history should attract the interest of a broad public. More to the point, their effects still influence relations between Catholic and Orthodox Christians, and between Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Several centuries of crusading

Many Muslims, for instance, still reckon that the crusades initiated centuries of European aggression and exploitation. Some Catholics want the pope to apologise to the world for them. Liberals of all stripes see the crusades as examples of bigotry and fanaticism. Almost all these opinions are, however, based on fallacies. The denigrators of the crusades stress their brutality and savagery, which cannot be denied; but they offer no explanation other than the stupidity, barbarism and intolerance of the crusaders, on whom it has become conventional to lay most blame. Yet the original justification for crusading was Muslim aggression; and in terms of atrocities, the two sides' scores were about even.

The anti-crusaders draw on, and distort, the views of historians from the late 19th century on, who offered mainly materialistic reasons for the crusades. These historians saw them as early examples of the expansion of Europe, with recruitment for them a response to economic, not religious, impulses. In an imperialist age, the crusades seemed to be forerunners. The conquests in the east were, in a phrase much loved by French historians, 'the first French empire'. This was picked up by the British at the time of Allenby's victories over the Turks and his entry into Jerusalem in 1917-18; it was then passed on to early Arab nationalists, who turned it on its head.

The First Crusade certainly began the process of European conquest and settlement in the eastern Mediterranean; but this was not planned from the start. The Christian knights assumed they would be joining a larger force that would drive back Muslim Turks who had recently invaded Asia Minor, and restore Jerusalem, lost for 350 years, to the Byzantine empire. It was only a year into the campaign when, finding little support from the Byzantine Greeks, they struck out on their own.

The subsequent decision to settle the Levant comprehensively seems to have been taken not from a desire for land or profit, but to defend the holy places that the crusade had won, and to maintain a Christian presence in the Holy Land. If the kingdom of Jerusalem established by the crusades was a colony, it was in a special category of such enterprises, grounded more on ideology than economics. Another example is modern Israel.

More recently those still looking for an economic explanation of the crusades have argued that rising populations forced European families to take measures to prevent the break-up of their estates, either through primogeniture or through the practice of allowing only one male of each generation to marry. These measures, it was said, produced a surplus of young men with no prospects, who were naturally attracted by the hope of adventure, spoils and land overseas. Yet there is no evidence to support the argument - nor, even, that younger sons tended to crusade rather than older ones. And it can be shown from documents that foremost in the minds of most nobles and knights was not any prospect of material gain but anxiety about the costs.

Warfare is always an expensive business; and this was war of a type never experienced before. The crusaders were volunteers, at least theoretically. Those not ensconced in the household of a great crusading noble had to finance themselves. Meeting the bills often meant raising cash on property or rights. It was to alleviate this burden that European kings, shortly followed by the church, instituted systems of taxation (including the first regular income taxes) to provide subsidies. The argument that the crusades were a response to economic conditions at home turns out to be grounded on dubious assumptions.

Why did these interpretations hold for so long? Charters recording the pledging and selling of property and rights by crusaders have, after all, been in print for at least 100 years. The reason that so many historians overlooked them may have been that they were blinded by an abhorrence of religious and ideological violence, and by their inability to comprehend that it could have had any appeal. They forgot how intellectually respectable the Christian theory of holy war once was. It was easier to believe that the crusaders were too simple-minded to understand what they were doing; or to argue that they had been motivated, whatever they said, by a desire for material gain.

Since 1945 new questions have been asked. Combat psychiatry made great strides during the second world war; it became harder to categorise behaviour in war in the old clear-cut terms of heroism or brutality. There was also a natural revival of interest in the theoretical underpinning of a 'just war'. The Nuremberg trials, and their assumption that crimes could be committed against humanity, gave new life to the concept of natural law. Similarly, the debate over whether obedience to orders was justified raised questions about the legitimate authority of the state in war. Later on, the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, and a concern with proportionality, brought another just-war criterion, right intention, into the foreground. The 1960s revival of Christian theories of positive force in South American liberation movements also contributed to the debate.

Crusade historians, in short, suddenly discovered that there were sincere and devout contemporaries of theirs holding ideological positions quite like those of the medieval writers they were studying. And, with their eyes opened, the fundamental weakness of arguments for a materialist motivation, and the paucity of the evidence on which they rested, became clearer.

Holy war

The theoreticians at the time of the crusades drew on the work of theologians such as St Augustine of Hippo, the greatest and most influential proponent of Christian violence. For them, violence, when employed as a means of opposing 'injuries' and thus achieving justice, could accord with divine providence. All rulers, even pagans, were divine ministers who could proclaim just wars; but God could also personally order violence. Violence specifically commanded by him was not to be distinguished from other just violence, except that it was 'without doubt just'. The concept of a political Christ, which was to return in the 1960s, passed so out of fashion after the late 18th century that in the 1930s one theologian, Jacques Maritain, wrote of sacred violence being an impossibility, because no modern state could be associated with Christ's wishes for mankind.

It is no coincidence that in the decades leading up to the proclamation of the First Crusade a group of brilliant intellectuals were anthologising and reviving St Augustine's ideas. Crusade propagandists took trouble to conform their arguments to the criteria for Christian violence he had laid down, including the need for a just cause and a right intention on the part of the fighters; and they drew on the idea of a war at Christ's command mediated by the pope as his agent on earth.

Yet in one respect crusading was unlike nearly every other manifestation of Christian holy war. The cross was enjoined on men (and women) not as a service, but as a penance. The association of war with penance, in which the assumption was made that combat was so severe and unpleasant an experience for the penitent fighter that it constituted an act of self-punishment, had first been made a decade before the preaching of the First Crusade. It was unprecedented in Christian thought, as conservative opponents pointed out at the time. It was startling because it put fighting on the same meritorious plane as prayer, works of mercy, and fasting. The penitential element was reinforced by associating the First Crusade with pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the most sacred goal of all, and a place where devout Christians went to die.

Although over the centuries the penitential element was to some extent diluted by the notion of chivalric service, it remained at the heart of the crusading ethos. Preparations for crusades were always surrounded by an atmosphere of penitence. From the Fourth Lateran Council in the early 13th century to the Council of Trent in the middle of the 16th, every general council of the Catholic church was summoned on the ground that no crusade could be successful without a reform of the church. Crusaders knew that they were embarking on a campaign in which their obligations constituted an act of condign self-punishment.

In some cases, indeed, men considering entry into monasteries changed their minds on hearing about the First Crusade and joined up instead; they saw in crusading some equivalence to monasticism. Running through many of the documents issued by departing crusaders is a pessimistic piety, expressed in a horror of sin and a fear of its consequences. The crusaders craved forgiveness. They joined up, as one put it, 'in order to obtain the pardon that God can give me for my crimes'; or, wrote another, 'so that he might gain Christ'.

In most expressions of holy war God is at the centre of things; in crusading the crusader was. For him the crusade was only secondarily about service in arms to God or the benefiting of the church; it was primarily about benefiting himself. That was why a Dominican preacher in the later 13th century commented of the crusading dead that, 'by this kind of death, people make their way to heaven who perhaps would never reach it by another road.' Hard as it is to understand, Christian culture had produced an ideology in which fighting was an act of self-sanctification.

But the side-effects

It is necessary not to lose sight of the rest of the picture. Ventures of this sort easily attract psychopaths, and no method was devised whereby the crusades could screen recruits for suitability. Indeed, it could not have been, because crusades were technically pilgrimages that had to be open to all. In any case successive popes were sometimes only too pleased to get any response at all to their appeals.

Because the successful launching of a crusade depended on arms-bearers volunteering to take part, churchmen went to great lengths to address them in a language easy to understand. In doing so, they ran the danger of arousing forces which they could not control. For example, to call on men in an age of extended families and endemic blood-feuds to go to the assistance of their 'father' Christ, who had lost his patrimony, or of their 'brothers and sisters', who groaned under a Muslim yoke, risked the swift degeneration of any crusade into a vendetta. The passions unleashed, when combined with the stresses of crusading, led to acts of unspeakable horror.

There was even, sometimes, a savage beauty about active service. Think of Richard the Lionheart battling against Saladin; of the glittering coats of arms carved and painted on the walls of fortresses on the shores of the Aegean and the Baltic; of a fleet leaving Venice in the autumn of 1202 with trumpets and horns calling and braying to each other from ship to ship across the water; or, most romantic of all, of the colourful bravado of the Teutonic knights in 14th-century Prussia, who attracted recruits from all over Europe for campaigns against Lithuania that involved long rides through a wilderness of forest, undergrowth and bog, before a ravaging cavalcade in pagan territory, and finally a feast at Marienburg where a Table of Honour was laid for the most prestigious knights, and badges were presented to the most meritorious by the grand master.

This chivalric theatre masked, however, many awful atrocities: ferocious pogroms against Jews that were features of the preliminaries of many crusades, gross examples of ethnic cleansing in which non-Christians were driven from towns of religious or strategic significance by deliberate campaigns of terror, and collapses in military discipline that led to appalling consequences for any wretches unlucky enough to be found in the crusaders' path.

No one could possibly condone a movement that, through its cocktail of idealism, indiscipline, alienation and stress, managed to give birth to such grotesque manifestations of inhumanity. Yet one should not criticise crusaders for being what they were not. They were not imperialists or colonialists. They were not simply after land or booty. And they were not too stupid to know what they were doing. Their scale of values was different from today's. They were pursuing an ideal that, however alien it seemed to later generations of historians, was enthusiastically supported at the time by such heavyweights as St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Thomas Aquinas.

Blindness to reality can be dangerous. Only ten generations have passed since Christian armies, operating within a clear tradition and inspired by a coherent ideology, were winning a land war against the Turks in the Balkans. Modern Christian sacred violence has largely been confined to churches in poor countries. Although the Lebanese Maronites, whose church submitted to Rome in 1180, have always had a folk memory of a golden age under crusader rule, and the Croats - and, from a different perspective, the Orthodox Serbs - have romanticised the disasters and triumphs of the Balkan wars against the Turks, in almost all Christian tribalism in recent years there has been no specific ideology of holy war. The roots of ethnic violence have, in every case, lain rather in nationalism.

Things may be different in Islam, although nationalism obviously plays a large part there as well. Some Muslims now maintain that the jihad should be interpreted merely as a battle against evil. But in its traditional form, it was a war for the extension of Islamic territory. Some Muslims still seem to envisage the use of force, not only to counter perceived threats to their way of life, but to bring about world reformation on their own terms.

Indeed, it is conceivable that a situation could arise not unlike that in the 50 years or so before the proclamation of the First Crusade. After a period of quiescence, fanatical Muslims, Turkish religious warriors in Asia Minor and Berber zealots in Spain were destabilising the frontiers between the religions. The development of crusading was in part a response to a huge loss of Christian territory in the east.

History never repeats itself. But if renewed aggressiveness among Muslims were to meet a revival of Christian theories of positive force, the outcome could be nasty. One way to avoid it is to study and interpret the crusades - and the conditions that allowed them to flourish. Understanding should help to bring enlightenment.


Waves of crusades


             Dates              Places

First        1095-1102          Asia Minor, Palestine

Second       1147-49            Syria, Palestine

Third        1189-92            Cyprus, Palestine

Livonian     1193-1230 et seq   Prussia, Lithuania

Fourth       1202-04            Greece, Constantinople

Albigensian  1209-29            France (v heretics)

Fifth        1217-29            Egypt, Palestine

Spanish      1229-53, 1482-92   Spain, North Africa

St Louis     1248-54, 1269-72   Palestine, Egypt

Nicopolis    1396               Balkans

Hussite      1420-31            Bohemia (v heretics)


1995 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved