Yesterday’s post called forth stimulating comments, and it may help to reiterate the point. The medieval crusaders were motivated, for the most part, by religious idealism. Contra decades of scholarly claims, there’s no evidence that the holy wars relieved families of surplus sons, or attracted knights to seek fortune abroad. Family members and relatives had to make harsh sacrifices in providing cash for departing crusaders, and knights often had to shell out up to twice their annual income in order to bring along their equipment, horses, and servants. There were few rewards to be won in Palestine in any case; the possibility of settlement after a 2000-mile march to the east was wild and remote, and everyone knew it.
The factors which did motivate crusaders — aside from self-defense — are rather alien to us. The medieval period was an age of vendettas and pilgrimages, and the crusades were both. Knights readily identified with papal vendetta-calls to aid their lord Christ, who had “lost his inheritance in the holy lands” and was being humiliated by the infidel; and everyone warmed to the idea of crusading as a public pilgrimage (private devotions were foreign to most of the laity). Holy wars were penitential before anything else, assuring indulgence for sins.
The crusaders may end up looking more or less attractive than before, but it’s the historical understanding we’re after. Defensive responses to Muslim aggression, zealous vendettas over holy places, and reverent pilgrimages paint a different picture than boorish colonialism.
In yet another article, “Rethinking the Crusades”, Jonathan Riley-Smith (a Catholic) asks whether or not the church should be apologizing for the crusades. He makes the point that the war-atrocities against Muslims abroad were no worse than those seen in any ideological war, while the horrors inflicted on Jews, heretics, and fellow Christians at home were appalling by any standard:
“If the behavior of the crusaders in the East cannot be considered to have been quantitatively worse than that of those fighting in any ideological war, the behavior of the crusaders in Europe could sometimes be abominable, even by the standards of the time. Before heading off to the Jerusalem crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, some Europeans ‘prepared themselves’ through violent outbreaks of anti–Judaism in France, Germany, and England. During the crusades launched against fellow Christians or heretics, the most unpleasant examples of loss of discipline and control took place (the sacks of Constantinople in 1204 and of Béziers in 1209 spring to mind). If we are going to express contrition for the behavior of the crusaders, it is not so much to the Muslims that we should apologize, but to the Jews and to our fellow Christians.
“But should we be apologizing at all? No crusade was actually proclaimed against the Jews, although crusade preaching unleashed feelings that the Church could not control. As far as crusading itself is concerned, most Muslims do not view the crusades, in which they anyway believe they were victorious, in isolation. Islam has been spasmodically in conflict with Christianity since the Muslim conquests of the seventh century, long before the First Crusade, and the crusading movement was a succession of episodes in a continuum of hostility between the two religions. Muslims do not seem to have considered until relatively recently that the crusades stood out in this history… It follows that apologizing to them now can never, as far as they are concerned, get to the root of the problem, because the crusades are merely symptomatic of a much longer–term competitiveness. It is rather like a marksman aiming at an opponent and, while he fires his rifle, expressing regrets for his ancestor’s use of a bow and arrow.”
I agree, though my infidel outlook targets the issue in a more general way. I have little use for any public apologies — but especially for historical injustices, whether real or imagined — because they’re patronizing and seem inherently disingenuous. In the case of the crusades, they’re not only that, but empty, for the reasons given by Riley-Smith.