God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades

Gods battalionsIf you want to read just one book about the crusades, make it God’s Battalions. It’s the wisdom of scholars condensed into something accessible, and the unapologetic truth for a change. Namely that the crusades emerged as a long overdue response to Islam, a hijacking of the peaceful Christian religion, to be sure, but tailored for medieval knights whose profession didn’t allow for peace, and who could now at least channel their aggression into a needed cause.

Islam’s “Golden Age”

The book starts as it should: with Muhammad, not Urban II. Much has been written about early Islam and its “golden age” of tolerance, but in fact Muslim rule had always been militant, supremacist, and expansionist. Its cultural sophistication originated with the conquered dhimmi populations who lived in humiliating servitude. Medicine came from the Nestorian Christians; mathematics from the Hindus; philosophy from the Persians; etc. When in the 14th century Muslims east of Spain and Africa stamped out nearly all religious nonconformity, Muslim backwardness suddenly came to the fore — but that backwardness was always there.

The Crusades: Offensive or Defensive?

That the crusades were an overdue response to jihadist conquests implies that they were reactive wars of defense. This would seem to contradict the arguments of experts who emphasize the crusades’ proactive and offensive nature. Who’s right? Rodney Stark or Christopher Tyerman? Thomas Madden or Thomas Asbridge?

Obviously both are. In the general sense, and in the pope’s own words, the crusades were defensive responses to (a) help the Byzantines against invading Muslims and (b) take back the the holy lands where Christian pilgrims were frequently attacked and their shrines desecrated. Muslims had been the aggressors for four and a half centuries. That, however, doesn’t answer the real question, “Why the crusades?” Latin Christendom could have responded to the Byzantines with standard military aid. Why the radical step — so radical it contradicted everything fundamental about Jesus’ teachings and Christian theology — of making warfare sacred, like Islam’s jihad, and not simply to fend off invasion but take back Palestine?

The crusades only make sense in the context of the 11th-century papal reforms. The 10th century had been the worst in French history. Church corruption abounded, nobles warred on each other, sometimes right next door. In the 1020s the reformers tried enforcing the Peace of God (or Truce of God), which prohibited knights from fighting certain days of the week. That was like telling a monk not to pray — an epic fail. A knight’s lifestyle during this era was nothing less than a celebration of bloodshed and sin, as Stark says, and priests imposed stiff atonement penalties which often required pilgrimages to the holy land.

“War was chronic among the medieval nobility and any knight who survived for very long was apt to have killed someone. Even when victims were evil men without any redeeming worth, their deaths were held to constitute sins, and in most instances the killer enjoyed no obvious moral superiority over the victim — sometimes quite the reverse. In addition to violence, the lifestyle of medieval knights celebrated the Seven Deadly Sins and was in chronic violation of the commandments against adultery, theft, and coveting wives. Consequently, knights were always in need of penance, and their confessors imposed all manner of acts of atonement, sometimes even demanding a journey all the way to the holy land.”

What the crusades did was extend this principle of atonement in a radical way: warfare itself could now be penitential under the right conditions, and a pilgrimage itself. Liberating the holy lands from Muslim control was not only justifiable warfare, it was sacred. Going on crusade effected the remission of a knight’s sins and enabled him to bypass purgatory. If the pope could not get these knights to observe a peace of God, he could at least enlist them into a worthy cause.

In sum: a responsible sifting of the evidence requires us to acknowledge the proactive nature of the crusades that were pressed into a primarily defensive purpose.

Lingering Myths

That crusaders were motivated by the need for penance has become non-controversial in academia — about as standard as the idea in New Testament studies that the apostle Paul wasn’t criticizing Judaism for being legalistic. (Jonathan Riley-Smith being the E.P. Sanders of crusades scholarship.) But myths linger, and Stark reminds us out of necessity: Crusaders weren’t driven by greed; they were impoverished by crusading expenses. Nor by conquest; Palestine was no “land of milk and honey”, and the resulting crusader kingdoms had to be supported with subsidies from Europe. Nor even by desire to convert Muslims; unlike in Islamic countries, where resident Christians were forced to live in a humiliating state of dhimmitude unless they converted. Crusaders were motivated exactly by what all the evidence shouts: religious zeal.

The mountain of evidence puts this beyond dispute. Had crusaders been motivated by land and loot, the European knights would have responded earlier (in 1063), when Pope Alexander I tried to get a proto-crusade off the ground by driving the Muslims out of Spain. Unlike Palestine, Moorish Spain was wealthy, had an abundance of fertile lands, and was close at hand. But hardly anyone responded to the pope’s summons. Yet three decades later, tens of thousands of crusaders set out for the dry, impoverished wastes of faraway Palestine, with dim prospects about their future. Why so? Because the holy lands weren’t Spain. The riches to be won were spiritual: individual redemption, and the take-back of Christian shrines and relics. The lands where Christ walked and was killed.

The Irony

And here we come to it. The one (and only) commonality between the crusades and jihad: religious zeal. It’s this one similarity, ironically, that completely undermines what modern liberals tell us about Islam, and what scholars used to tell us about the crusades: that religion itself isn’t responsible for violent behavior. This isn’t true at all. Religious killers are often motivated by sincere piety. Crusaders were driven by religious fervor, not greed or conquest; jihadists were — and still are today — propelled by that same fervor, not poverty or the political grievances that inflame it.

This shouldn’t be a controversial point in view of the evidence. But the liberal/academic mind has incredible difficulty here. That people base their violent or suicidal behaviors on worries about suffering in purgatory, or on desires for virgins in paradise, suggests alarming things about the human psyche. And so we project a rationality onto religious killers, and misuse social and economic frameworks to make sense of them. We’re uncomfortable with “craziness” that can’t be tangibly accounted for, and so deny the clear link between religious beliefs and behavior. It’s intellectually irresponsible to do this. We need to face hard questions about the power of abstract beliefs.

Different in every other way

The crusades and jihad were different in every other way, and the differences derive from the nature and origins of the two faiths. Jesus had built a following by suffering for others; Muhammad had done so by the sword. Christianity had conquered the Roman Empire by conversion under persecution; Islam later conquered it by the sword. Islam continued by the sword, and when crusaders in the 11th-century finally took up the sword themselves, that was a hijacking of a peaceful religion, but tailored for a warrior class whose profession was at clear odds with Christ’s pacifism. In a similar way, the principles of Zen Buddhism have been bent to meet the needs of bushido. Christianity and Buddhism are for the most part peaceful religions, but crusaders and kamikaze pilots stand as proof that religions of peace can be hijacked under exceptional circumstances.

Jihadist warfare has never been a hijacking, or distortion, or perversion, of Islam. It has been an essential ingredient from the start, and remains so today in all schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The crusades were voluntary; jihad was and still is mandatory. The crusades were a burp and foreordained to pass; jihad is built into Islam’s DNA.

“The Best and Brightest”?

The following assessment from Stark comes as a breath of fresh air:

“It was not until the upper-class sons of Europe were slaughtered in the trenches during World War I that Europe suffered the loss of a generation of leaders equal to that which took place during the First Crusade. Those who marched east were among the best and the brightest of their time. When they died, the responsibilities for managing many major estates and dealing with many important concerns fell upon widows and minor sons, and on those who failed to serve, just as it did in England, France, and Germany in the 1920s.”

Which is not to say that Stark soft-peddles crusader atrocities. Only that it’s absurd to judge the crusades by Geneva-Convention standards. The point isn’t that Christians couldn’t be brutal and intolerant — this was a brutal and intolerant age. But to suggest that Muslims were the lesser villains, or enlightened supporters of multiculturalism, is revisionist fantasy. They were the aggressors, and usually the side more deserving of censure. “The best and brightest” may be rhetorical flourish, but Stark is right than when judged by the time period, the crusaders don’t deserve to be demonized. He makes a good case for their cause.

It’s a book that President Obama would do well to read, given his recent remarks about the crusades. When objectors scold him by saying, “The medieval Christian threat is under control, Mr. President, please deal with the Islamic threat today,” the real problem isn’t even being addressed. Of course the crusades are long gone, but they were never the “threat” that Islam was and is.

The “Islamophobic” Triumvirate: Maher, Harris, Spencer

On the face of it, Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Robert Spencer would seem unlikely allies. The first is a left-wing comedian, the second a moderate neuroscientist, the last a right-wing political commentator. But on the subject of Islam they are as one, and I count myself in their company. None is a scholar of Islam, but each is better equipped to address the subject than the likes of Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong.

I’m voicing my support for these men because virtually no one else will. The abuse they get has been astonishing to me, and I’ve even experienced a mild version of it myself. It’s brought home how difficult the Islam issue is, and how we manufacture bigotry to kill honest discussion in advance.

Salon and Bill Maher


Bill Maher (Video)

Salon’s writers aren’t the brightest, but the recent article by Heather Parton sets a record level of absurdity that unfortunately speaks for many. So let’s wade through her points before turning to the deeper problems.

“Critics of Islam like Bill Maher and Sam Harris have been strongly challenged by those who believe that one shouldn’t hold an entire religion responsible for the actions of a fringe that interprets their sacred book in a way that encourages violence.”

Right off the bat she blows it. Islamic fundamentalists aren’t the fringe, and in some places they’re the mainstream. Their numbers are hugely significant. They’re not analogous to Christian abortion-clinic bombers, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, lone rogues like Timothy McVeigh — or any of the few-and-far-between extremists who receive no support from any mainstream Christian group. Islamic fundamentalists are daily active, and they are precisely the ones whose beliefs are grounded in official Islamic doctrine. This is the #1 misstep I see in almost every discussion of Islam: equating jihadis and sharia-advocates with fringe extremists.

“There are, after all, nearly 2 billion Muslims in the world and while it’s true that there are passages in the Qur’an that can be interpreted as condoning violence the mere fact that the vast, vast majority of its adherents do not interpret it as a literal call to arms argues that Maher’s and Harris’ critics are right.”

It suggests no such thing. No one — least of all Maher, Harris, and Spencer — denies that a small percentage of Muslims are jihadists. That small percentage is still way too huge (again, not fringe). Moreover, there is a larger percentage of Muslims who share identical beliefs with jihadists even if they wouldn’t participate in war or terrorism themselves. Still further are conservative Muslims who would not endorse jihad or sharia, yet they hold to intolerant views that make conservatives of other religious faiths look liberal. Whether we speak of “connecting tissue” between these groups (Maher), or the overlap between concentric circles (Harris) — jihadists at the center, Islamists around them, and then Muslim conservatives — this is the accurate portrait of global Islam, and to deny the reality is irresponsible. Thus the second misstep: the failure to acknowledge Islam’s texture which pervades large portions of the world’s Muslim population.

“But one has to wonder if a person who thinks that a book, however sacred and meaningful, can induce people to commit acts of violence, is equally concerned about other forms of influence? Does Bill Maher think that because television and movies glorify violence they should also be held responsible for many of the violent acts perpetrated here and around the world? After all, if Islam is responsible for the violence of a handful out of nearly 2 billion adherents you’d think Hollywood should be held responsible for the violence of a handful out of the billions of people who watch their violent programs, wouldn’t you?”

I couldn’t believe I was reading this. It’s absurd to compare violence in entertainment and the violence mandated in religious doctrine. Religious ideas galvanize people; entertainment provides a harmless outlet for our violent impulses. (We should applaud artists like Quentin Tarantino for precisely this reason. Critics who suggest that his films could be responsible for real-life violence know nothing. The Japanese film industry cranks out films which make Tarantino’s look like Disney, yet Japan’s crime rate is lower than America’s.) Films may desensitize people to violence. Holy books like the Qur’an incite people to violence.

“There is a history of trying to hold the entertainment business liable for inspiring the criminal activities of its customers… The only reason to bring all this moldy history up is simply to point out that people often seek to blame an outside influence for violent and destructive actions of individuals. And when it comes to our entertainment industry, which is clearly very violent, we have always found that individuals themselves are responsible.”


Sam Harris (Video)

For good reason. Individuals are responsible for their actions, in any context, religious or otherwise. That doesn’t mean we pretend that religion can’t have anything to do with inspiring them. Parton goes on with an example of a college student who was (possibly) planning to use ricin to poison someone, (possibly) influenced by the character of Walter White on Breaking Bad. This lone-rogue example is so facile it doesn’t constitute an analogy, for the reasons above.

“Bill Maher seems to think that the Muslim religion is at fault for acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam. But, in fact, it’s the radical imams who are cajoling, pressuring and bribing young disaffected men to commit violence in the name of Islam — which is not all that different from what the FBI is doing, is it? It’s not the idea or the book or the religion that’s encouraging them to make these bad decisions; it’s older men in authority manipulating younger men to carry out their plans. There’s nothing new or unusual about that.”

A red herring. No one denies that authority figures manipulate people. Just as no one denies the litany of other factors — western imperialism, poverty, lack of education. But religion is by far the biggest factor. Many other places (Swaziland, Costa Rica, the Philippines, you name it) are plagued by colonialism, poverty, and/or lack of education, and have their authority figures, yet they aren’t combustible like Islamic cultures. What China has done to the Tibetans is just as bad as what Israel and western powers have done in the Muslim world, but suicide-bombing has not been the Tibetan-Buddhist response. Jihad violence may be exacerbated by the Israeli occupation and our meddling in Iraq, but it’s certainly not born of it. And that’s the third blunder: bending over backwards to find cause for religious violence in all but the most obvious place: religion itself.

Root Issues: The Difficulty with Liberals

It’s especially my crowd that has difficulty being honest about Islam. As liberals we want religions to be equivalent for sake of multiculturalism and to make interfaith dialogue easier. But interfaith dialogue should be like free speech, and raise discomfort as it empowers. The “no gains without pains” proverb may sound trite, but that’s the only way we improve. Islam is a religion of violence. We need to get comfortable saying that. That most Muslims are peaceful doesn’t effect this conclusion. Jainism is a religion of peace. Fanatical Jains are like fanatical Amish: harmless beyond dispute. Buddhism hangs toward the peaceful end. I would put Judaism and Christianity on the peaceful side too, though a bit closer to the middle: they have violent and intolerant elements but carry the seeds of their transformation because of their many positive supplements. Such assessments arouse unease, if not outrage, among liberals, but this is how interfaith dialogue should proceed.

There’s something else at work. I think it’s hard for us (again, liberals especially) to accept that religious zealots can be motivated by beliefs simply on the “purity” of those beliefs; that these zealots are attracted, in the abstract, by martyrdom and promises of paradise; that such ideas can be in and of themselves psychologically rewarding. Sam Harris and Robert Spencer are right: Not all jihadists are “lone wolves”, maladjusted, poor, or politically angry. Even those who are can be inspired by abstract ideas irrespective of that baggage. Many of them — we see example after example — come from well-integrated families and are as normal as we consider normal to be.

Scholarship of the medieval crusades sheds a fascinating light on this. I explained why the crusades are in most ways a weak analogy to the jihad, but there is one way in which they are completely analogous: the zealous mindset they fostered. Christian knights were motivated by sincere piety. It took a long time for scholars to accept this, but giants like Jonathan Riley-Smith, Thomas Asbridge, and Christopher Tyerman have put to bed the myth that crusaders were mostly land-hungry boors motivated by greed, or second-born sons looking to improve their lot in life. All the evidence counts against it. Crusaders really believed that spilling Muslim blood would remit their sins and enable them to bypass purgatory (just as jihadists believe in the virgins waiting for them in paradise); these knights had been drowning in guilt, taught that their profession was evil (if a necessary evil) and contrary to Christ’s teachings; the crusades came as a papal godsend. For the first time ever, and completely against the grain of Christian scripture and tradition, violence could now be sacred. To the medieval knight this idea was precious in and of itself. But for a long time scholars projected their rationality onto the knights and explained the holy wars in primarily social and economic frameworks. That’s what we do today with the jihad. We’re uncomfortable with “craziness” that cannot be rationally or tangibly accounted for.


Robert Spencer (Video)

There is an even third reason for liberal-minded folks to deny truths about Islam. As Michael Moore recently noted, we’re tired of our drone strikes in the Middle-East. Speaking plainly about Islam may come across as justification for more war-mongering. (I happen to agree with Maher over Harris: we need to get out of the Middle-East and let others, and Muslim neighbors, sort out the mess for a change.) Not to mention fear-mongering: it may sound like we’re seeing terrorists under every rock and giving tacit approval for the NSA to spy on us. I share these concerns (4th Amendment rights are particularly sacred to me), but lying about Islam isn’t the answer to war and paranoia. We can’t fix a problem that’s falsely diagnosed.

Nor, especially, can liberal Muslims. Removing the violence and intolerance out of Islam kills the patient. It mutates the religion into a different species. When Christian reformers attempt to “look forward by going back” — to recover the early teachings of Jesus and the apostles — they can be successful because, for all of early Christianity’s archaisms (hopes for the apocalypse, etc.), there are enough elements in the New Testament that facilitate progressive moves. There has never been anything equivalent to the Catholic or Protestant Reformations in the Islamic world, because harking back to the example of Muhammad is drastically counter-productive. What little benevolence can be found in the Qur’an is trumped in any case by Muhammad’s later revelations. The 18th-century reform of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, accordingly, produced one of the nastiest strains of Islam ever. Indeed, on the usual understanding of reform (“recovering earliest roots”), it is jihadists and sharia-advocates who are Islam’s true reformers. Only on the other understanding of reform (realigning beliefs in progressive directions) can liberal Muslims be construed as the torch-bearers.

There, in my opinion, is the rub. In most religions, the two understandings of reform can usually work as one; in Islam that’s virtually impossible. To make Muhammad benign, you’d have to rely on the revisionist fantasies of Karen Armstrong.

One of my co-workers has a plaque hanging over her desk. The words of Jo Godwin beam down: “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” So does a great society. The offense of bigotry is excluded, of course, but Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Robert Spencer aren’t bigots. They are not the Phil-Robertson demagogues implied by our mainstream media. They stand for an intellectual integrity that’s rare in discussing Islam, and they indeed offend. That offending integrity is something for which I’m thankful this holiday.

Islam and Other Religions

star-and-crescent“Islam is not like other religions,” said Bill Maher to Charlie Rose exactly a month ago. And since then, it’s been one firestorm after another. Frankly, I think Maher and Sam Harris have been talking plain enough sense that they shouldn’t be controversial. But they are. Meanwhile, Reza Aslan and Ben Affleck make fools of themselves to astonishing praise.

This post is an attempt to clear the table of nonsense to make room for more productive dialogue about Islam. I’m grateful to the following people for lively discussions through Facebook and elsewhere: Zeba Crook, Jeff Hinman, Mike Grondin, Robert Spencer, Matt Bertrand, Antonio Jerez, Chris Zeichman, and James Crossley. Some of them will be less than pleased by what I present below, but all inspired the issues in some way. Some speak for the bolded objector; others will agree more with my replies.

Conflating jihadism with Islam is like conflating abortion-clinic bombings with Christianity. Most Muslims are peaceful.

That peaceful Muslims are the majority doesn’t make jihadists the fringe. There are many Islamic extremists, and they have huge influence. Jihad and sharia remain official doctrine; they are mandated in all four schools of Islamic law. They are to Islam what the resurrection is to Christianity.

Abortion-clinic bombers, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and lone rogues like Timothy McVeigh are undeniably fringe. None receives endorsement from any group of mainstream Christianity. For every one of them are thousands of jihadists who are routinely active. There’s no comparison here at all.

Okay, fine. But surely the problem isn’t with Islam itself. The Qur’an has peaceful and violent passages, like the Judeo-Christian Bible. Scriptures can be cherry-picked and emphasized however you want. They can be re-interpreted or distorted, for good or ill.

It’s disingenuous to pretend that Islam’s scriptures are as malleable as those of other religions. In the Qur’an, the ratio of violence to peace, and of intolerance to benevolence, is distressingly high. You can’t cherry-pick the Qur’an like Karen Armstrong does in order to understand Islam. You have to read it cover to back, and take it comprehensively.

Even worse: the Qur’an’s peaceful passages are cancelled in advance by the Qur’an itself. Only when Muslims are weak and in a minority position should they behave according to the very few peaceful passages (which reflect the early time when Muhammad was vulnerable and building his power base). When strong, Muslims are obligated to wage war according to the huge number of violent passages (which reflect Muhammad’s later rise to power). When passages are in conflict, the later ones supersede the earlier ones. This is called the Doctrine of Abrogation in Islam.

Say what you want: there are loads of bad ideas in other holy writings.

Yes, plenty of bad ideas can be found in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Vedas, the Sutras, the Tao Te Ching, and other canons. But Islam, as Sam Harris says, is the motherlode of bad ideas. Most of the bad ideas in other scriptures carry within themselves the seeds of their own transformation, thanks to enough positive supplements.

For example?

Consider the apostle Paul’s homophobia. It’s strong. But the New Testament (including Romans, where the most offending text resides) is tempered by pervasive requirements for universal charity, which has allowed much of Christian thought to evolve on this point. Pope Francis has extended benign principles to homosexuals found abundantly in the New Testament. In all four schools of Islamic law, homosexuality still carries the death penalty — and neither the Qur’an or hadiths are fertile soil for a new transformation. Liberal Muslims try, and we should applaud them. But they aren’t making an impact where it matters most. It’s doubtful they ever will.

But scripture requires interpretation, and interpretation involves importing one’s cultural and social prejudices. There’s more hope for Islam than you allow, because people shape their scriptures. Scriptures don’t shape them.

It cuts both ways. Texts have impact on human behavior, and it’s absurd to suggest that they have no essential content or character in themselves. Scriptures don’t just depend on what believers bring to them. Believers are shaped by what they teach. But yes, holy writings can also become tools used to justify unexpected beliefs and behaviors against their own grain. That doesn’t undermine the opposite flow: people are galvanized by textual ideologies and abstract ideas. Interpretation can be wildly creative, but it more often aligns with what’s already there.

Jihadists, in fact, interpret their scriptures quite well. Whatever spin they put on it, whatever cultural and political baggage they bring to it, whatever political grievances accentuate it, and whatever distance they have from Muhammad’s original situation in the 6th century, the fact is that they are naturally extending the prophet’s message. Their interpretation of the Qur’an is as objectively “correct” as pacifist interpretations (esp. Mennonite, Quaker, and Amish) of the Christian scriptures. Both draw inspiration from an overall texture.

Medieval Christians ignored that texture when they started their own holy wars. They even justified them by claiming that Jesus came “not to bring peace but a sword”.

Yes. The crusades are exhibit-A for the malleability of scripture. They prove that you can indeed justify something that cuts entirely against the grain of your tradition. (Especially since that “sword” is metaphorical, as the medievalists well knew.)

So you admit the jihad is analogous to the crusades? That if a man who taught loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, and letting whoever is without sin throw the first stone can mutate into a religion of holy wars, then the opposite can be achieved by a religion founded by a war-monger?

Not really, no. The crusades were similar to the jihad only for their premise of sacred violence, and the zealous mindset they fostered for security of one’s salvation. In just about every other aspect — how essential they were to Christian doctrine (not), how mandatory they were on Christian believers (not), how difficult they were to justify theologically (very) — they were opposite phenomena.

The crusades were a creative solution to the problem of medieval knights. Popes had been trying for decades to curb knightly violence (telling knights they couldn’t fight certain days of the week, etc.) but to no avail. A knight’s profession depended on warfare, and warriors lived in a constant state of guilt, told by the church they were sinful for violating the peaceful example of Christ. In response to Islamic offensives, the pope suddenly went the opposite route, and gave Christian warriors full rein to their violent impulses, by making bloodshed sacred if they channeled their aggressions against Muslims and reclaimed the holy lands. Only with the intersection of these issues — jihad offensives, Islam’s control of the holy lands, and uncontrollable Christian knights — were holy wars made possible in Christian thinking. Even then, justifying them was acknowledged to be a problem.

Islam has never had problems justifying the jihad, because it has been essential to the faith (a sixth pillar of Islam) since it was formulated in the earliest years of the 7th-9th centuries. It shows no sign of going away. There has never been anything close to a reform movement to spiritualize it away, reinterpret it, or make it obsolete. All four schools of Islamic jurisprudence affirm the necessity of jihad warfare to this day. In sum, the jihad is an ingrained impediment to progressive evolution. The crusades undermined Christianity’s tenets, and were foreordained to pass.

What about Islam’s golden age (8th-13th centuries)? Islam was light years ahead of Christianity, especially its treatment of women.

Islam was not “light-years” ahead of Christianity during this time. At its best, in the so-called golden-age, the Muslim regions around Baghdad, Cordoba, and Cairo were relatively pluralistic. But there was plenty of intolerance too. Anti-semitic pogroms flared up; Jews and Christians were second-class citizens who had to pay a head tax (the jizyah) from which Muslims were exempt. As for women, they were certainly not held in higher esteem than elsewhere. Those who write about women being treated well during this period are the same kind of romanticists who claim that Anglo-Saxon women of the 11th-century enjoyed more democratic freedoms prior to the Norman conquest. Neither is true.

Muslims had things going for them in this period: medicine, math, science, poetry, and architecture. But most of this was inherited, not generated, in their conquests across the Byzantine empire, the Near East, and the Christian regions of North Africa. The “golden age” of Islam also happens to be the period when jihad warfare was formulated, and prosecuted in various degrees, long before the crusades took wing.

In sum, weighing the frequent claims about Islam’s best period — non-jihadist peace (false), cultural pluralism (half true), better treatment of women (false), cultural and scientific achievements (only superficially true) — make its relative advantages virtually meaningless in assessing the potential for Islam today.

So the crusades were a burp, and Islam’s golden age is overrated, but there are religious militants today across the globe who are not Islamic.

Of course. You can point to Jewish militants on the West Bank, Buddhist scourges in Burma, and Christian who murder in Nigeria. But they are exceptional, and none comes close to approaching the pervasive menace and violence of Islam. Exceptions like these — precisely because they are so exceptional — do not show that Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism lend themselves to violence. Just the opposite: on whole, these religions tend to constrain humanity’s impulses to violence. Islam encourages it.

I still have a hard time accepting that Islam is so incomparable to other religions. It sounds like you’re stacking the deck against it.

We can certainly compare Islam to other religions, but we need to use proper analogies. Holy wars, terrorism, and militant supremacism aren’t the place to look. A better example would be contraception in the Catholic church. Unlike the crusades, but like the jihad, contraception has been a consistent Catholic obsession and its prohibition is mandatory on all believers. Most Catholics ignore the mandate and use contraceptives anyway, because they choose to live responsible lives. But there are also Catholics who do as the church teaches and shun birth control.

Ditto in Islam. Most Muslims are peaceful and just want to coexist in the world as normal people. But that’s not reform. Too many other Muslims take the obligation for jihad and sharia seriously. If Catholicism is going to start teaching responsible birth-control behavior, and if Islam is going to embrace humane civilized thinking, they have uphill reformist battles ahead of them. Though even here, of course, Islam’s is far steeper.

So where do we go from here?

This post, as I said, is a table-clearing. Dialogue about Islam needs to move beyond bargain-basement talking points. The question of essentialism is worth pursuing. We’ve become very sophisticated in our use of social and economic models to understand the evolution of religions, and this is obviously a good thing. Readers know that I rely on such models myself. But these should be supplements, not replacements, to whatever essentialism can offer. When people parrot the idea that religion is entirely “what you make of it” — that it’s shaped purely by human agency, social and political forces, and the accidents of history — we’re clearly in an over-reactive mode. Even the theater of the absurd.

Crusades Pick List

If you want to know what professional historians say about the crusades, these are the books you need.

1. 2745Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred Andrea & Andrew Holt (editors). 2015. The grand myth of the medieval period is that the crusades were a a barbaric and unprovoked assault on a sophisticated and relatively tolerant Islamic world. No crusades scholar takes that myth seriously but it persists everywhere — in films and novels, political speeches and commentary, even in the halls of undergraduates. Breaking it down into seven sub-myths, historians take turns communicating current scholarship to a general reading public, and make the scholarship accessible and engaging in a way that many academic books (even some on this list) are not. If there is only one book on this list to read, it’s this one. Reviewed here.

2. The Atlas of the Crusades, Jonathan Riley-Smith (editor). 1990. Maps punctuated with painstaking detail — historical dates, battle sites, travel routes, castles & fortresses, monasteries & holy sites, cities and towns — are set against the backdrop of splendid color-plating. The expeditions to the holy lands are charted in minuscule detail, as well as those in Spain and the Baltic region. See how the Islamic world evolved and shifted under different caliphates, and how Christendom responded to recruitment for the holy wars. It’s a crime that this is out of print: it’s a visual bible, unlike Angus Konstam’s Historical Atlas of the Crusades, which should be avoided. It’s rare that I would recommend an atlas as one of the best sources on a particular subject, but this is a goldmine of information.

3. God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, Christopher Tyerman. 2006. The definitive history of the crusades covering the holy wars in Palestine, the Spanish Reconquest, the Baltic campaigns, and wars against the Ottomans. It demolishes myths about crusading motives, which had nothing to do with conquest or boorish greed: knights were impoverished by crusading expenses and expected to return home. Crusaders were driven by sincere piety, the need for penance, and to take back the holy lands where Christ walked and was killed. As for the papacy, it was driven by the 11th-century reformist agenda, as it tried to redeem a knighthood whose profession didn’t allow for peace. Tyerman shows how crusading evolved, and how it was criticized and lacked support for over a century before Innocent III established it as an institution with all the logistics formalized. He also dispenses with lazy comparisons to the Islamic jihad. Unlike the crusades which were voluntary and theologically problematic, the jihad was mandatory and fundamental to Islam.

4. The Chronicles of the Crusades: Eye-witness accounts of the Wars Between Christianity and Islam, Elizabeth Hallam (editor). 1989. Eyewitness accounts. Loads of them. A tale of cannibals who roasted babies on spits; the account of the horrible fate on the Field of Blood; a rabbi’s account of how Bernard of Clairveaux saved Jews from massacre; descriptions of the gradual “easternizing” of crusaders; a Muslim’s contempt for Acre, “the city of Christian pigs”; Innocent III’s letter of excommunication threats to the leaders of the Fourth Crusade; and much more. No student of the crusades should be without this handsome selection of primary sources interwoven with modern essays.

5. What Were the Crusades?, Jonathan Riley-Smith. 2009. The crusades have been either incorrectly or too ambiguously defined, and Riley-Smith explains them in context. A crusade was (1) a voluntary and temporary vow to wage warfare in the defense of Christian places or people; (2) approved by the pope; (3) penitential, whereby the participants received remission for the penalties of confessed sins, as well as a package of related temporal privileges, including church protection of family and property, immunity from lawsuits and debt interest. Crusades weren’t confined to the holy lands; the wars fought in Spain and the Baltic region were also crusades. This book justifies the definition.

6. The Dream and the Tomb, Robert Payne. 1984. If you want a popular treatment of the crusades, go with this one (and avoid Karen Armstrong). It focuses on the holy land theater (1095-1291) and reads like a novel while mostly remaining true to history and primary sources. The chapters covering the time period of 1100-1187 are the best, sketching the six kings of Jerusalem in all their colorful personas: militant Baldwin I, pious Baldwin II, shrewd Fulk, charismatic Baldwin III, lecherous and unbelieving Amalric I, and brave, leprous Baldwin IV (Payne curiously drops the ball on Baldwin I, calling him a womanizer of all things; most scholars now recognize that he was probably homosexual). By the time Jerusalem falls to Saladin in 1187, this dynasty has become part of your family.

7. The Crusades: The Essential Readings, Thomas Madden (editor). 2002. An important assortment of scholarly essays, many of which broke important ground. Jonathan Riley-Smith — the “E.P. Sanders” of crusades scholarship — refutes myths of colonial crusaders, in particular the idea that crusaders were landless sons intent on carving out territories abroad. Tyerman’s controversial article, “Were There Any Crusades in the Twelfth Century?”, argues that prior to Innocent III (1198-1216) the crusades really weren’t distinct from other forms of Christian warfare. H.E.J. Cowdrey’s classic “Pope Urban’s Preaching of the First Crusade” also finds a place in this collection.

Gods battalions8. God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, Rodney Stark. 2009. This makes a reasonable case for the crusades as a necessary evil: that they emerged as an overdue response to Islam, a hijacking of the Christian religion, tailored for medieval knights whose profession didn’t allow for peace, and who could now channel their aggression into a needed cause. The book starts with Muhammad, not Urban II, and dispels myths of Islam’s “golden age” of tolerance. Muslim rule had always been militant, supremacist, and expansionist, and its early cultural sophistication originated with the conquered dhimmi populations who lived in humiliating servitude. The point isn’t that Christians couldn’t be brutal and intolerant; this was a brutal and intolerant age. But the common idea that Muslims were the lesser villains, or enlightened supporters of multiculturalism, isn’t true. Reviewed here.

reconquest9. Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain, Joseph O’Callaghan. 2004. Spain was not only a critical part of the crusading theater, it was the longest running, dating from even before the First Crusade to the end of the 15th century. This books shows the degree to which how crusading transformed Europe, let alone Palestine; Spain practically became viewed as an alternative holy land, and a peculiar one where Spanish nationals and religious zealots joined to produce something unique. People came from all over Europe to aid in the Reconquest. O’Callaghan knows Spanish history inside and out, and was born to write this book.

northern10. The Northern Crusades, Eric Christiansen. 1998. Like the above entry, this one focuses on a huge theater of crusading outside the holy lands. The wars in the Baltic were as penitential as those in Spain and the holy lands, and far more successful. They were essentially the struggles of Scandinavian rulers, and the German military monks known as the Teutonic Knights, to take over Finland, Estonia, and Prussia. It ended up producing a more formidable conflict with the eastern empires of pagan Lithuania, orthodox Novgorod, and Catholic Poland, and was a long-lasting clash dating from the mid-12th century to the mid-16th. It’s the essential book for the Baltic crusades.


The Crusades: The Complete Series

This series on the crusades was fun to write. Here are the posts gathered under one and placed on the sidebar.

From Soldiers of Hell to Soldiers of Christ
From Just War to Holy War
The Use of Scripture During the Crusades
The Jihad
The Six Kings of Jerusalem
The Evolution of the Crusades
The Anti-Jewish Pogroms
The Fourth Crusade
The Children’s Crusade
Defining the Crusades

Epilogue: Afterthoughts on the Crusades

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.

Defining the Crusades: Traditionalists, Pluralists, Generalists

Bringing this series to a close, I want to define the crusades, an oddly controversial task. Consider the following scholarly camps, outlined by Jonathan Riley-Smith (What Were the Crusades?, 3rd edition, pp xi-xii, 101-102):

(1) Traditionalists maintain that only the expeditions to the holy lands, and the recovery of Jerusalem especially, can be considered crusades (1095-1291). Hans Mayer is a good representative of this view.

(2) Pluralists claim that any campaign in which the participants took penitential vows and enjoyed special privileges (including those against the Muslims in Spain, the pagans in the Balkans, heretics in Europe, later wars against the Ottomans, etc.) should be considered crusades (1000s-1500s). Jonathan Riley-Smith is the most influential scholar here.

(3) Generalists resist defining or categorizing crusades at all, believing such concepts and structures to be the inventions of modern scholars. They locate the origin and nature of crusading in the general development of Christian warfare and ecclesiastical acceptance of violence, even before 1095. Carl Erdmann is a classic advocate of this position.

Christopher Tyerman is nonplussed by Riley-Smith’s groupings:

“Although neat, these categories remain artificial and not entirely helpful. Some traditionalists deny the centrality of Jerusalem in Urban II’s preaching of the First Crusade. Some pluralists accept the emotional primacy of Jerusalem.” (Fighting for Christendom, p 229)

Tyerman himself seems to straddle both pluralist and generalist camps. In a controversial essay, “Were There any Crusades in the Twelfth Century?”, he was much the generalist, arguing that prior to Innocent III, “crusades” weren’t distinct from other forms of Christian warfare. In his newly released landmark, God’s War, he has backpedalled a bit, advocating both pluralist and generalist ideas. (He remains at least a quasi-generalist for the 1095-1198 period.)

I find Riley-Smith’s classifications more helpful than Tyerman does, even if overlap is inevitable: I’m a pluralist who recognizes some validity to the other positions. One can hardly dismiss the traditionalists entirely: there was obviously a sense in which the holy lands provided the center of gravity for the crusading movement. The generalists too have a point: ideas about holy wars were gestating decades before the first was summoned, and even after that it took a century for crusading to become fully and discretely institutionalized. (But I certainly can’t accept the early Tyerman’s claim that there were “no crusades to speak of” in the 12th century).

The pluralist position has the most going for it, because it focuses on the question of motive (instead of place, against the traditionalists) and looks to the index of canon law to distinguish crusading from other theaters of Christian warfare (against the generalists). A crusade, therefore, properly defined, was

(1) voluntary warfare waged against infidels, nominally in the defense of Christian places and/or people (regardless of more salient motives)

(2) approved by the pope, rather than a temporal ruler

(3) penitential, whereby the participants received remission for the penalties of confessed sins (reformulated after 1198 as a plenary indulgence), as well as a package of related temporal privileges (which grew over time)

So the crusades were not confined to the holy lands — the wars fought in Spain and the Baltic region being obvious cases — and yet were more distinct than granted by those who dismiss “crusading” as an artificial construct.

In the next and final post, I will offer some general reflections on the crusades.

Crusading Distortions (III): The Children’s Crusade

The story of the Children’s Crusade (1212) is a mixture of history and romantic myth, telling of two boys who had independent visions of marching to Palestine with “armies” of pacifist children, and shaming the Muslims into giving up the holy lands. This march of peace would supposedly succeed where warfare had failed. The boys attracted large followings in Paris and Cologne and began their respective marches to the Mediterranean coast. When the French group came to Marseille — apparently expecting God to part the seas so they could continue — local merchants offered to transport the children in seven ships; two of these ships were lost at sea, while the others went to Africa, where the duped kids were sold into slavery. The German group made it as far as Rome — many having died en route in the Alps — but dispersed when the pope refused to see them. Some persisted in trying to secure passage to the holy lands, and, like the French children, were shipped to brothels and slave markets, this time in the Mediterranean. A few did reach Jerusalem by joining groups of overland pilgrims; they naturally had no impact on arrival. No one paid any attention to children.

The Children’s Crusade may have been a pathetic tragedy, but it’s difficult to separate the fact from fiction. There may not have even been a French movement: based on the evidence it seems more likely that it was dismissed as soon as it was born in Paris (the king sent the children home). The German movement, on the other hand, did get under way, and made it through the Alps to Genoa. From there it may have been a small part of this group which went to Marseille (instead of the entire French group), though most proceeded to Rome, and dispersed from there, illusions shattered.

Perhaps the most mythological aspect involves the idea that this crusade consisted exclusively of children (pueri). That makes for stirring legend, but it was doubtfully the case. Says Christopher Tyerman:

“In fact these pueri may have been less juvenile than the name implied. To a Cologne chronicler, the pueri ‘ranged in age from six years to full maturity’. Norman and Alpine monks recorded that the marchers were adolescents and old people. Accounts indicated that participants came from outside the usual hierarchies of social power — youths, girls, the unmarried, sometimes including even widows — or economic status: shepherds, ploughmen, carters, agricultural workers and rural artisans without a settled stake in land or community, rootless and mobile.” (God’s War, p 609)

Perhaps the Children’s Crusade would be better called the Simple Folk’s Crusade. Dissatisfaction with the inability of kings and nobles to secure military victory in Palestine led to a popular crusade which insisted on a return to apostolic simplicity and leaving victory to God. Interestingly, even though this pacifist-crusade had no clerical backing, it was never officially condemned by the church.

However historical, however legendary, the simple folk’s pacifist march of 1212 stands as a testimony to the malleability of crusading as it was becoming ubiquitous under the papacy of Innocent III, influencing the laity like never before.

In the next post we’ll try defining the crusades, a task which has eluded the best of scholars.

Crusading Distortions (II): The Fourth Crusade

The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) is one of the most appalling events in history. To call it a crusade is actually a misnomer, since it turned away from its Muslim target and ended by attacking the eastern Christians — destroying (though redefining) Byzantium, resulting in centuries of estrangement between the Latin and Greek churches. How did the crusaders get sidetracked to Constantinople and drawn into warring on their fellow Christians?

The fiasco was engineered by the Venetian sailors initially hired by the crusaders for transport. When the crusaders couldn’t raise enough money, the Venetians began making their own rules: instead of cash, they demanded help in recovering an Italian city, and then (in collaboration with Philip of Swabia and Boniface of Montferrat) help in installing a new (puppet) emperor on the Byzantine throne. The crusaders agreed, and before long everyone was sailing to Constantinople. Innocent III was aghast at this turn of events — he had given orders that no Christian cities be attacked on a crusade — but despite his excommunication of the expedition, it continued, eventually resulting in the new eastern emperor, Alexius IV. When he turned out to be a nightmare, causing riots culminating in his murder, the crusaders and Venetians seized Constantinople for themselves in one of the most gross and bloody takeovers in world history.

Steven Runciman, admittedly not always the most trustworthy source, suffices with the following description:

“The sack of Constantinople is unparalleled in history… The Franks were filled with lust for destruction. They rushed in a howling mob down the streets and through the houses, snatching up everything that glittered and destroying whatever they could not carry, pausing only to murder or to rape, or to break open the wine cellars for their refreshment. Neither monasteries nor churches nor libraries were spared. In St Sophia itself drunken soldiers could be seen tearing down the silken hangings and pulling the great silver iconostasis to pieces, while sacred books and icons were trampled under foot. While they drank merrily from the altar-vessels a prostitute set herself on the Patriarch’s throne and began to sing a ribald French song. Nuns were ravished in their convents. Palaces and hovels alike were entered and wrecked. Wounded women and children lay dying in the streets. For three days the ghastly scenes of pillage and bloodshed continued, till the huge and beautiful city was in shambles. Even the Muslims would have been more merciful, cried the historian Nicetas, and with truth.” (A History of the Crusades, Vol III, p 123)

The takeover resulted in a 57-year period of Latin rule in the eastern empire (1204-1261), which Runciman infamously condemned as (1) the destruction of the most accomplished Christian civilization, and (2) the weakening of Christendom’s defense against the Turks. But is this accurate? Christopher Tyerman questions such an analysis, noting that while the crusaders destroyed Byzantium, they redefined it at the same time. Moreover:

“This does not necessarily establish the Fourth Crusade’s blame for the later woes of eastern Europe, the second of Runciman’s complaints. Runciman saw Byzantium so undermined by 1204 that it could ‘no longer guard Christendom against the Turk’. This ultimately handed ‘the innocent Christians of the Balkans’ to ‘persecution and slavery’. This is a view clouded by a crude religious and cultural analysis… However unpleasant, the Fourth Crusade did not precipitate the triumph of the Turk. The occupation of parts of the Greek empire by Latins and Venetians at least ensured some continuing western investment in resistance to the Ottomans that outlasted the Byzantine empire itself. More widely, the assumption that Ottoman rule was per se bad, ‘worse’ than Greek imperial rule or that of fractious and often vicious Christian groups in the Balkans, depends upon racial and religious stereotypes and prejudices. Not all fourteenth-century Greeks preferred Byzantium to Latin or Turkish rule.” (God’s War, p 560)

Point being that just because the Fourth Crusade was unforgivably appalling doesn’t mean it was responsible for later events, nor even the decline of eastern Christendom per se.

Of all crusading distortions, the Fourth Crusade was the most perverse — even worse, in my view, than the anti-Semitic pogroms of the First and Second Crusades — and again, it’s a misnomer: the actual crusade to the holy lands was abandoned soon after the Latin takeover of the eastern empire. Apologists had to rely on just war theories, rather than holy war theories, to justify the slaughter of the Greek Orthodox. One of the aims of crusading had been to improve relations with the eastern churches, and the crusaders and Venetians had destroyed those relations once and for all.

In the next post we’ll look at the Children’s Crusade.

Crusading Distortions (I): The Anti-Jewish Pogroms of the First and Second Crusades

We’ve discussed many aspects of the crusades so far: their genesis, their appeal, their justification, their evolution, and their relation to the Islamic jihad. Now we turn to crusading distortions, manifestations of the holy wars which were unsanctioned or condemned by the church. This post examines the anti-Jewish pogroms of the first two crusades. In subsequent posts we will look at the Fourth Crusade and the Children’s Crusade.

The church never proclaimed a crusade against the Jews, but some crusaders began wondering why they shouldn’t rid Europe of “Christ-killers” on their way to do battle with Muslim infidels. Count Emich of Leisingen (1096) and the monk Radulf (1146) were the ringleaders. As the First Crusade was getting under way, Emich’s troops massacred Jews in Speyer, Worms, Mainz (most horribly), and Cologne. Synagogues were burnt, Torah scrolls desecrated, Jews who refused baptism (conversion) killed on the spot; fifty years later, at the outset of the Second Crusade, Radulf incited similar attacks. Three questions press: (1) who were the attackers, (2) what motivated them to go after Jews, and (3) why did the attacks occur in the Rhineland in each case, and only the Rhineland?

(1) Who were the attackers?

A myth that persists, particularly in apologetics, is that the waves of anti-Semites consisted mostly of uneducated “low-lives”. That was certainly the explanation given by contemporaries, but most scholars today know better. “We cannot allow ourselves to be lulled by the comforting belief that the persecution of Jews was perpetuated mostly by gangs of peasants,” (Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History, p 20). We know — factually, undisputably — that many knights were involved in the attacks. Nobles and commoners alike participated in the massacres.

(2) What motivated them?

The answer to this question is less clear. Was it greed or religious zeal? Jonathan Riley-Smith says the latter:

“The Hebrew accounts ascribe greed more to local bishops, their officials and townspeople than to the crusaders, who seem to have been more interested in forcing conversions. Everywhere Jews were offered the choice of conversion or death, and synagogues, Torah scrolls and cemetaries were desecrated. The Jews feared that the crusaders intended to wipe Judaism out of the regions through which they passed. There is overwhelming evidence that uppermost in the crusaders’ minds was a desire for vengeance. They found it impossible to distinguish between Muslims and Jews and if they were being called upon, as they saw it, to avenge the injury of Christ’s honor of the loss of his patrimony to the Muslims, why, they asked, should they not also avenge the injury to his person of the crucifixion?” (The Crusades: A Short History, p 17)

But Christopher Tyerman sees a strong financial motive at work too — not greed per se, but simple need. The crusaders had sold or pledged their patrimonies in order to afford going on crusade, and still faced further expenses (see God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, pp 103-104). In his view, financial and religious motives went in tandem. As I read the primary accounts, both Riley-Smith and Tyerman are right. Non-crusaders could be complicit for greedy reasons, but the crusaders themselves were driven by religious zeal, if also an obsession with cash to meet the demands of their journey.

(3) Why only the Rhineland?

Not because Germany was inherently predisposed to anti-Semitism (despite Luther and Hitler, the worst of the lot), but because conditions in the region were ripe for it. Jews had been encouraged to migrate to northern Germany during the tenth and eleventh centuries, in order to enhance the economic prestige of the Rhineland cities. They were guaranteed protection by the Holy Roman Emperor, but royal authority had been weakened in the 1070s by the Investiture Contest and general conflict with the papal reformers. Henry IV was in no position to enforce protection, and when the lure of Jewish riches — and Jewish blood — beckoned, it was hard to for the German authorities to do anything about it.

Opposition to the pogroms

That’s not to say that the pogroms went unopposed. The preacher of the Second Crusade, for instance, Bernard of Clairveaux, is legendary for countering Radulf’s anti-Judaism:

“It is good that you march against the Muslims, but anyone who touches a Jew to take his life, is as touching Jesus himself. Radulf, my pupil, who said that the Jews should be destroyed, did not speak correctly. For it is written about them in the book of Psalms, ‘Slay them not, lest my people forget.'” [Psalm 59:11]

Here we have the curious spectacle of a medievalist outdoing modern liberals. In claiming that “anyone who kills a Jew is killing Christ”, Bernard inverted Jewish guilt, foisting the blame for Jesus’ death onto misguided Christians. The real “Christ-killers” weren’t Jews, but those who harmed Jews.

Conclusion: An Unnatural Perversion

The pogroms of the first two crusades show how the holy wars could degenerate into perverse vendettas against the Jews. But it is completely wrong to say, as James Carroll does, that the crusades were inherently anti-Semitic (Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, p 248). Attacks on the Jews were in no way a natural outgrowth of the crusading movement. They were recognized as a perversion of that movement.

In the next post we will look at the Fourth Crusade.