II. Who’s right?
We’ve seen that the popular opinion of the media and the masses contradict what is written, at least in my World Book entry.
The Wikipedia entry seems to downplay the Islamic conquests, instead focusing on the problems in Christendom – which may well have been true, but it isn’t enough to explain the misconceptions. Moreover, it does also talk about the different attitudes toward the Crusades in the West and the East, albeit with a rather contrived sympathy to the East: “the standard Western legend speaks of heroism and honour, the Eastern (Islamic and Orthodox Christian) chroniclers tell stories of barbarian savagery and brutality” – I guess that’s why most people in West think so badly of the crusades, huh? 🙄 This still doesn’t explain the inconsistency between what’s recorded and the public perception.
So, what’s the story?
In this regard, the article by Thomas F. Madden (professor of medieval history and a crusade historian, as you’ll recall), The Real History of the Crusades is helpful. Madden observes that the public never seems to even question the popular culture’s ideas about the Crusades. Indeed, they never really needed to, until that fated day on September 11th. From that day on, medieval history suddenly became relevant to the general public so that now, Madden writes, objective history has a chance to put the record straight on the public misbelief:
|Many historians had been trying to set the record straight on the Crusades… 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. The Crusades 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. For variations on this theme, one need not look far. 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.
The article goes on to reaffirm what the World Book entry said, and more:
|Christians in the eleventh 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 the time of Mohammed, 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 for that matter 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. When Mohammed was waging war against Mecca in the seventh century, Christianity was the dominant religion of power and wealth. As the faith of the Roman Empire, it spanned the entire Mediterranean, including the Middle East, where it was born. The Christian world, therefore, was a prime target for the earliest caliphs, and it would remain so for Muslim leaders for the next thousand years.
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 eighth century, Muslim armies had conquered all of Christian North Africa and Spain. In the eleventh 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 sent word to the Christians of western Europe asking them 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.
In other words, if the Crusades never happened, the whole of Europe may well have been conquered (they got very close to Italy and Germany), and the multitude and the media now broadcasting their outcry would likely be either living under subjugation (if Christian or Jew), be Muslims (if their ancestors were forced to convert) or not exist at all (if their ancestors did not choose either of the options above, and thus were executed). This is why it was a holy war; it sought to preserve the Christian faith against the invading foreigner, and take back what was conquered.
I recommend reading the article in its entirety. It also debunks a couple of popular myths that contribute to the popular misconceptions:
- that forced conversion was the goal and result of the crusades – there were none, and it was not the purpose of crusading; defense of the Christian states and retaking of the Holy Land was.
- that the Crusaders were out to get rich through looting and plunder – again, “computer-assisted charter studies have demolished that contrivance”.
Glad we cleared those up! There is one more question that needs to be answered though: if all these myths are so wrong, why did the late Pope apologise, and how did the Crusades get such a bad name? Glad you asked ;-), let’s look into that in the next post.