I’m enjoying Christopher Tyerman’s new book on the crusades, God’s War, and will eventually write a detailed review of this colossal achievement. I found this interview with the author from about a year and a half ago, back when his shorter book was published. Excerpts:
Were the Crusades imperialism as we think of it today, a yearning to colonize?
TYERMAN: There was no strategic reason for Western knights and soldiers to be laboring about in the Judean hills… They were there for essentially ideological religious reasons. The Holy Land and Jerusalem were regarded as part of Christendom, as a relic, and the Crusaders went there, in a sense, to establish a protective garrison to restore, as they saw it, their holy city to Christian control. But the prime motive of crusading in the Holy Land was not initially that of settlement. If you wanted to make a profit, you did not go on Crusade. Crusaders habitually made thumping losses.
And you describe the enthusiasm with which men volunteered for the Crusades really saw themselves and the army they were joining as instruments of God’s will. Talk to us about that.
TYERMAN: The whole idea of a holy war is different from that of a just war. The Crusade was a holy war; therefore, it was a devotional practice in itself. A just war is a legal form of war that excuses war, but admits that war is an evil. Holy war says that the war engaged in is a holy act in itself. The actual killing and fighting is in accordance with God’s will.
Are the Crusades parallel to the idea of jihad in Islam?
TYERMAN: Jihad is slightly different. In Islam, there is the greater jihad, the jihad al-akbar, which is largely a spiritual, an internal and personal struggle for spiritual purity. There is the lesser jihad, the jihad al-asgar, which is expressed in military terms, particularly against infidels… [From God’s War: “Both were obligatory on able-bodied Muslims. Unlike Christian concepts of holy war, to which the Islamic jihad appears to have owed nothing, jihad was fundamental to the Faith, described by some as a sixth pillar of Islam. In theory, fighting was incumbent on all Muslims until the whole world had been subdued.” (p 53)]
And so how do you think we should look back on the Crusades or how should we be holding them in memory today?
TYERMAN: The Crusades should not be discounted as a barbaric eccentricity. The role of violence in Christianity, the role of violence as a tool of state-building, of identity-building, of expression, of human ambitions, either temporal or spiritual, is an important lesson. We tend, I think, today to think that we are wiser than our predecessors, and I think we’re not. And I think if we looked at the Crusades directly, we will see that many of the solutions that 12th-century people reached in reaction to their desires and problems have, as I say, parallels, not connections, to what we do today.