Understanding the Crusades

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.


11 thoughts on “Understanding the Crusades

  1. <>“Crusaders were motivated by anything but economic interests. They were motivated by sincere religious zeal.”<>That’s precisely what made them so dangerous – much like today’s Islamic jihadists. There’s nothing like religious/ideological zeal to make people engage in irrational and bloodthirsty behavior. No one flies planes into buildings for money.

  2. Right: crusaders could be just as dangerous as today’s jihadists for this reason. Naturally that’s not the entire picture of crusading, a phenomenon which spanned over five centuries and in different manifestations. We’re loathe to give the crusades a fair shake because holy wars are (rightfully) seen as obsolete today. But yes, zeal can be much more lethal than imperialism.

  3. I think such statements could (and should) be qualified. Not wanting to bang my favourite drum (but obviously I will) we could still see the crusaders as reflecting broader economic terms even if this was not their primary motivation. Ideology can also be a reaction to longer trends. For what it is worth that doesn’t require falling back on value judgments.In terms of the present this is crucially important. If we think of various terrorist attack they are no doubt motivated by ideological zeal but there is much more. The obvious ones, as bin Laden himself stresses in recruitment, would be Palestinian situation and recent policies in the Middle East. It is often said that pre-Sept 11 there was no Iraq war etc but this is just (deliberately I suspect) missing the point. Sanctions in Iraq were a massive issue, esp. with the deahts of 100s of 1000s of children. In terms of imperialism, it is also important to think of the US. Various commentators have pointed out that a) there are ideological concerns but also b) that US foreign policy reflects longer term threats to US capitalism and hegemony.I suppose that’s a long way of saying that perhaps looking at broader economic and imperialistic trends remains important whereas individual motivations of greed etc. was never going to get us very far in explaning history.

  4. What we need to remember is that the Crusades were not only motivated by religious zeal, but by desperate defensive strategy.The Crusades were a defensive counter-attack against the tide of Islamic imperialism of the last three centuries that had swept almost to Paris in the west and Constantinople in the east.It was the Byzantine Emperor’s request for troops to defend against the invading Turks in Anatolia that triggered the first Crusade.

  5. James, I think part of the point of Loren’s citation of Riley-Smith is to push back against the post-colonial analyses that have characterized late 20th century scholarship on the Crusades. This is not to say that economic aren’t important (they are), but we may be overexaggerating one set of motivations at the expense of others.

  6. This makes me think of holy wars (crusades) among conservative Christians today. I don’t think their primary motivation is economic. I think they are absolutely sincere in their zeal for defending what they believe to be truth.

  7. Although the film <>‘Kingdom of Heaven<> is obviously not accurate history as <>‘Hollywood History’<> it seems par for the course. At least some of the fact/fiction contrasts listed in Riley-Smith’s article seem legitimate for artistic purposes.

  8. <>At least some of the fact/fiction contrasts listed in Riley-Smith’s article seem legitimate for artistic purposes.<>The contrasts listed at the bottom of the article aren’t the issue. (You’re right, they’re trivial.) It’s the overall depiction of the crusade phenomenon that’s ridiculous, by any standard.

  9. Loren,Thank you for the post and links. I recently finished reading <>The Crusades, Islam and Christianity in the Struggle for World Supremacy<>, by Geoffrey Hindley (giving rise to a < HREF="http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2006/07/some-thoughts-on-crusades.html" REL="nofollow">blog<> about the book). One of the things that impressed me was the descriptions of the gatherings where people would be moved to literally “take up the cross” by sewing it on their clothes. Another thing that impressed me was how the nobles who took up the cross risked their secure positions at home to competing nobles or countries and bankruptcy in their Crusading efforts. Of course there were some motivated by economics, such as the Venetians or the Genoese, but the actual crusading leaders and armies risked a lot more than they could have hoped to obtain, at least in material terms.

  10. So why say the Crusaders are “much like today’s Islamic jihadists” and ignore the more obvious comparison, ie. the Islamic jihadists whose actions precipitated the Crusades? I mean talk about a rather useless and historically disingenuous comment. Indeed, you can’t talk about the motivations of the Crusaders without talking about the Islamic jihadists whose conquests threatened not only traditional Christian sites and pilgrimage from Palestine outwards but even threatened Europe herself. Whatever ills and injustices committed by the Crusaders have to be understood within that work… not as justification necessarily but certainly as a proper historical context.

  11. Ken wrote (responding to Matt B):<>why say the Crusaders are “much like today’s Islamic jihadists” and ignore the more obvious comparison, ie. the Islamic jihadists whose actions precipitated the Crusades? I mean talk about a rather useless and historically disingenuous comment<>I think that’s a bit unfair to Matt, though I agree with Ken (as mentioned already) that crusade-atrocities have to be understood in a wider context, not least the behavior of people under stress in combat zones. The analogy with Islamic jihadists applies sometimes, however, as in the case of the anti-Jewish pogroms which flared up at various intervals across Europe. Here the Jewish accounts ascribe any greed more to local bishops and townspeople than to the zealous crusaders, who didn’t want to be contaminated with “Jewish money”, and were more interested in forcing conversions on them (and if not, killing them). Here Matt’s analogy becomes appropriate.

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