Steven Runciman in 1951:
The Crusades were a destructive episode. There was so much courage and so little honor, so much devotion and so little understanding. High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a sin against the Holy Ghost. (A History of the Crusades, Vol III, p 480).
Jonathan Riley-Smith in 1990:
Until thirty years ago very few historians were prepared to believe that crusaders acted from idealism — hence the fashion for discussing the motives of crusaders in economic or colonial terms. But even as Runciman was writing his magnificent peroration the world around him was changing. It is no longer possible for historians to treat the crusaders simply as greedy imperialists or uncomprehending barbarians. (The Atlas of the Crusades, pp 158-159)
Jonathan Riley-Smith is the E.P. Sanders of crusades scholarship, having demonstrated the stereotype of barbaric, imperialist crusaders to be as wrong and misinformed as that of legalist Jews in the first century. He wrote a fine article in The Economist over a decade ago, well worth revisiting. People persist in viewing the crusaders as unsophisticated boors — not least Ridley Scott, whose Kingdom of Heaven movie is as laughably anti-historical as Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code. Riley-Smith had things to say about the film in a Times article, “Truth is the First Victim”:
“The makers of Kingdom of Heaven follow a modified version of [19th-century scholarly] constructs. A cruel, avaricious and cowardly Christian clergy preaches hatred against the Muslims and most of the crusaders and settlers are equally stupid and fanatical. At the same time the Holy Land is portrayed as a kind of early America, a New World welcoming enterprising immigrants from an impoverished and repressive Europe. And in the midst of all the bigotry a brotherhood of liberal-minded men has vowed to create an environment in which all religions will co-exist in harmony and is in touch with Saladin, who shares its aim of peace.
“This is invention. There was no brotherhood of free thinkers. There did not need to be, because within a decade or two of their occupation of Palestine the crusaders had adopted a policy of toleration, based on the Muslim treatment of subject Christians and Jews. Muslim and Jewish shrines, mosques and synagogues were open. Muslims worshipped even in Christian shrines and churches and there was at least one mosque-church. Of course the toleration was necessary if the natives were to be kept quiet, but it is a different reality from that portrayed in the film.
“Kingdom of Heaven will feed the preconceptions of Arab nationalists and Islamists. The words and actions of the liberal brotherhood and the picture of Palestine as a Western frontier will confirm for the nationalists that medieval crusading was fundamentally about colonialism. On the other hand the fanaticism of most of the Christians in the film and their hatred of Islam is what the Islamists want to believe. At a time of inter-faith tension, nonsense like this will only reinforce existing myths.”
In the post 9/11 world, understanding what motivated the crusaders is more important than ever. And what motivated them wasn’t money or material gain: on the contrary, they dreaded the dangers of travel and expensive costs involved over the trek to Palestine, and there were few rewards to be won in the Holy Lands. Crusaders were motivated by anything but economic interests. They were motivated by sincere religious zeal.