The crusading reformers were doing what all reformers do, reinterpret the scriptures in light of contemporary crises. But did the crusades accomplish anything positive? They did help pull Europe out of a backwater anarchy, channeling aggression outwards instead of inwards, and reformed a class of knights who had been taught their profession was evil. They also put Europe in touch with more advanced civilization, which would lead directly to the Renaissance. Hospices flourished, with increased care for the poor and diseased. The downside is that, as holy wars, they fed xenophobia against Islam, and led to perversions of crusading against Jews and eastern Christians.
We can respect the crusaders from a distance, without endorsing what they did per se. They were neither colonizers nor greedy boors, but sincere guardians of holy places and their salvation. Their outlook made sense in a world surrounded by Islamic aggression, even if it contradicted the tenets of the Christian faith. Catherine of Siena is one of those cited on The Pacifist Memorial, but few realize that this pacifist went out of her way to start a crusade and supported crusading in general. That was no more oxymoronic to them than a modern pacifist who endorses killing in one’s self-defense is to us. Holy wars were penitential, distinguished from the standard (or even just) warfare used to settle political disputes — as sharply as we distinguish killing in self-defense from murder — pressed into the service of a justifiable defensive bulwark against Islam.
As a secularist with pacifist leanings, I find myself in the odd position of defending the crusades. But “wars destroy and create, even if in unequal measures,” writes Christopher Tyerman (God’s War, p 921), and Europe may well have ended up worse if not for the crusades.
Bibliography to this series
Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land. Eco Press. 2010.
— The First Crusade: A New History. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Hallam, Elizabeth (edt). Chronicles of the Crusades: Eyewitness Accounts of the Wars Between Christianity and Islam. Welcome Rain Press, 2000.
Madden, Thomas. The Crusades: The Essential Readings. Blackwell Publishing, 2002.
Payne, Robert. The Dream and the Tomb. Cooper Square Press, 1984.
Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Atlas of the Crusades. Swanston Publishing Limited, 1991.
— The Crusades: A Short History. Yale University Press, 1987.
— What Were the Crusades? 3rd edition. Ignatius Press, 2002.
Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades. 3 vols. Cambridge University Press, 1951.
Tyerman, Christopher. Fighting for Christendom. Oxford University Press, 2004.
— God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. Belknap Press, 2006.