History is central to Christianity. Christians believe, not in some distant God, but a God Who acts from within mankind’s history. But in order to see His hand, it is absolutely necessary that true history be preserved. There are no mere events, but instead the very actions of God in time. In many ways, to be Catholic is to be a historian. We should not then be surprised that His enemies attempt to alter the stories. The Church often finds herself on the defensive against the revisers of history and so her members must become defenders of history. There is perhaps no area that has been so bombarded by revisionist historians as the Crusades. Therefore it is instructive to look at some of the common myths in order to be better prepared as Crusaders of Truth.
Myth 1: St. John Paul II apologized to Muslims for the Crusades
This is an important myth to debunk from the outset because, if John Paul II apologized to Muslims, then anything else we say on the matter would be moot. It is also a pretty widely held belief, even Wikipedia mentions it. But the fact of the matter is that he never did apologize to Muslims for their treatment by the Crusaders.
As the Church entered the Third Millennium, the Pope wanted to thoroughly examine her conscience and seek forgiveness for all the wrongs done by her. On March 12, 2000 he declared a “Day of Pardon” to acknowledge the Church’s sins. There was no mention of Islam or Muslims among the list of those the Church sought pardon from. The Crusades also are not mentioned. The closest that he came that day was during the homily when he said “We cannot fail to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially during the second millennium. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken toward the followers of other religions.” This is clearly not an apology for the Crusades however.
Likewise with the Second Vatican Council. In the Council’s document on other religions, Nostra Aetate, there is specific mention of Islam. While the Council Fathers conceded that in the past there was much quarreling and dissension on both sides and made a plea to “forget the past,” there is no asking of forgiveness or mention of regret. Instead the Council recommends that both sides “work sincerely for mutual understanding.” Only in light of this can the many centuries of hostility be replaced with a genuine understanding (NA, 3).
John Paul II did seek pardon from the Greek Orthodox in 2001 for the actions of the Crusaders during what came to be known as the Fourth Crusade. This is mentioned because this crusade is often used as “proof” of just how misguided the crusading spirit was. It is also a humbling reminder that not everything that happened is something we should be proud of. In this particular case the Crusaders got involved in local political intrigue rather than focusing on their mission.
One of the practical problems that the Crusaders faced was the fact that they could find no local and permanent government to put in place in Jerusalem. The Crusaders would often have to stay behind and form their own government in the region. This left them isolated and extremely vulnerable to Muslim attack. This is why Richard the Lionheart refused to take Jerusalem during the Third Crusade. He thought it a political liability and instead secured, via treaty, safe passage for unarmed pilgrims. The Fourth Crusaders had hoped that the Byzantine Empire would take control of the area because they were in a better position to defend it. But there was a great deal of political instability in Byzantium during the years of the Crusades. They sought to put a more Latin-friendly leader on the Byzantine throne and found it in Alexius IV (son of the deposed emperor Isaac II). He agreed to pay 200,000 Silver marks, supply provisions for expedition against Egypt, submit the Greek Church to Rome and then station 500 Knights in the Holy Land for its permanent defense. This was exactly the solution they were looking for, but when Alexius IV gave in to pressure from his subjects and ceased supplying the crusaders, war ensued. The Crusaders eventually sacked Constantinople and placed Baldwin of Flanders on the Byzantine throne. It was hardly the bloodbath that revisionist historians like to paint it as, but still about 2000 of the 150,000 residents were killed. Pope Innocent III immediately condemned their actions and declared the Fourth Crusade a failure because they did not recapture the Holy Land and turned on fellow Christians. Despite this condemnation, it still deepened the rift between the East and West. This is the rift that John Paul II was hoping to heal by addressing this wrong.
Myth 2: The Crusades were unprovoked; mostly about making a land grab and increasing wealth of the Church
As we learned from the folly of the Fourth Crusade, there are situations in which Crusaders could go awry in their mission. There also were some that went for less than noble reasons. However what is really at question here is the principles behind the Crusades.
The Crusades start in earnest in the Seventh Century as a response to Muslim expansion into Syria and Persia (modern day Iraq and Iran). Jerusalem soon followed in 638, although Christians were not cast out of the city. Pilgrims from the West into Jerusalem were mostly left unmolested because of their contributions to the local economy. In 1071 this changed drastically. The Turks (who were Sunni) invaded the Holy Land and attacked the “heretical” Shiite. They began to kill and enslave the resident Christians and any pilgrims who attempted to enter the Holy Land. In response to this, Blessed Urban II called for the First Crusade.
This myth is quickly debunked by reading Blessed Urban II’s speech to the assembly at Clermont calling for the Crusade. He told them that by taking the Cross “[U]nder Jesus Christ, our Leader, may you struggle for your Jerusalem, in Christian battleline, most invincible line, even more successfully than did the sons of Jacob of old – struggle, that you may assail and drive out the Turks, more execrable than the Jebusites, who are in this land, and may you deem it a beautiful thing to die for Christ in that city in which He died for us.”
He defines the twofold purpose; first the release of Christian captives and second the liberation of the city of Jerusalem. His use of the word pilgrimage also reveals motives because it showed that the aim was not to conquer the region, but to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land and return home.
A careful study of the history also shows that the intention of the successful Crusaders matched that of the Pope. To go on Crusade was incredibly expensive and it left many of its leaders in financial straits. Most Crusaders had to secure 4-5 times their annual income to go on pilgrimage. This not only renders absurd claims about the Crusaders seeking to secure wealth but also the myth that they were mostly landless younger sons.
In truth we have difficulty imagining the culture of the early second millennium. While we look for secular motivation, there were many men who were in fact driven by faith. The men who took the Cross were often great warriors and were far from saints. Yet they saw the Crusades as a means to make amends for their sins and gladly sought the indulgence attached to it so that they could become the saints they desired to be. In short, the fact that wealthy men risked their fortunes to take the Cross with the intention of returning home after the pilgrimage makes the “motivated by personal gain” hypothesis untenable. Those who did remain in the Holy Land after the Crusades did so at great peril and only out of the necessity of defending it.
Myth 3: The Church slaughtered all the inhabitants in Jerusalem
In October of 2001, just one month after the attacks of 9/11, former President Bill Clinton offered this explanation for the attacks:
“Those of us who come from various European lineages are not blameless…Indeed, in the First Crusade, when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem, they first burned a synagogue with three hundred Jews in it, and proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple Mount. The contemporaneous descriptions of the event describe soldiers walking on the Temple Mount, a holy place to Christians, with blood running up to their knees.”
Now putting aside the fact that the “contemporaneous descriptions” that he is referring to were using a biblical literary device (Rev 14:20—“blood came out from the wine press, up to the horses’ bridles”), he is promoting the myth that the Crusaders were overly brutal. While it is true that many people were killed, we cannot impose the rules of the Geneva Convention because it was a different time. The Rule of War of the time was different. When attacking a city, the aggressors always offered peaceful surrender as an option. When this was rejected, it was often the case that all a city’s inhabitants were put under the ban. This was meant mainly to be seen as a deterrent to other would be enemies.
This is not to say what they did was right, only that they were following the conventions of war at the time. Any combatants, Christian, Muslim or otherwise would have done the same thing. To judge by this standard leaves almost all victors of wars fought in history guilty of the same thing. It is not until we get to the 18th Century that we see anything similar to Christian (note the emphasis on the word Christian) Just War principles being consistently applied. This unfortunately is another case where attempts to condemn Christianity using Christian principles falls flat. All it ends up proving is another Christian doctrine—Original Sin. We often fail to live up to our Christian principles. Guilty as charged. But don’t pretend that the principles are something that weren’t given to the world by the Church.
How did these myths arise?
Like many clubs used to beat the Church, it gained teeth during the Protestant Reformation. Because the Crusades were so closely tied to the doctrines of papal authority and indulgences, they served as a great polemical tool for Martin Luther to conclude that the Crusades were nothing but a ploy by a power-hungry papacy. He even claimed that “to fight against the Turks is to resist the Lord, who visits our sins with such rods.” However he soon changed his mind when it began to get too close to home when Suleiman and his armies began to invade Austria. At that point however the foundation for attack was already set. First the Crusades were viewed through a confessional lens and, once the Enlightenment thinkers came along, it was viewed as “religious violence.”
What is difficult to determine is exactly when it was picked up by Muslim sympathizers. It may be that it is just a logical conclusion from the wide-scale acceptance of the three myths above. If those things are true then truly Muslims were the victims. They also paint current Muslim aggression as being retaliation for brutal colonization by the West. But to those who follow the tenets of Islam, the jihad never ended and won’t end until all are under the reign of Islam. Interestingly enough, that is precisely how all of this started.