A Different Sort of Apology for the Crusades

With the President’s recent remarks on the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast, the Crusades are suddenly (seemingly) everywhere. Everyone has their own opinion on why the President was wrong or why the Crusades were wrong or why everyone else is wrong. Unfortunately, it seems many are leaping to share their opinions with nothing more than a passing/pop culture familiarity with the events in question.

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I don’t intend to share much personally on the subject other than to recommend Rodney Stark’s book God’s Battalions[†] to anyone who would seek a first step in educating themselves on the subject at hand. I read and reviewed the book for a class last semester and found it to be an excellent starting point not just for a discussion of the Crusades themselves but for an examination of the lenses through which we we view the past. Stark apologizes for the Crusades not in the sense of asking someone/anyone for forgiveness but rather in the other sense of the word: that is, a reasoned argument or writing in justification of something. Stark aims to show that much of our so-called “knowledge” of the Crusades is actually not knowledge at all but misconceptions, untruths, and anachronistic impositions of modern, Western morality on a most decidedly non-Western and premodern culture. Whether or not you agree with Stark, it is important to acknowledge at least the possibility that we are not seeing everything with the equivalent of “historical 20/20 vision” (…as if that even existed). As historian Christopher Tyerman observed in a book with a similar aim as Stark’s: “To observe the past through the lens of the present invites delusion; so too does ignoring the existence of that lens.”[1]

For those not yet convinced or who want a preview of the book, I’ve excerpted a few paragraphs from my review in the rest of this post. So read on if you’re even just a bit interested in the subject.

“To begin with Stark disagrees with the theory that a major motivation for the crusaders was pursuit “of lands and loot” (4), especially for those who were not firstborn and would not receive an inheritance from their family. Stark responds to this idea by detailing the enormous cost to individuals, families, and even nations that the Crusades exacted. Crusading was not a profitable venture. In fact, the costs were often prodigious and exorbitant. Stark details how many families mortgaged large properties to raise the required funds (113-115). Jonathan Riley-Smith, one of Stark’s main sources, gives a conservative estimate that the Crusade begun in 1248 cost King Louis IX of France more than 1,500,000 livres, or the equivalent of more than six times Louis’ annual income.[2] The high costs to those that went crusading points the fact that “most knights and lords who raised funds on such unfavorable terms to go on crusade, especially the First Crusade, did so for religious reasons and not out of a desire for material gain.”[3] Had a desire for monetary gain been a primary reason to go, Stark concludes, many more would have responded to Pope Alexander II when he called for a Crusade in 1063 to Spain (118). Instead, they responded to a call to the Holy Land.

Stark also ably discusses the futility of judging the acts committed during the Crusades by modern standards by “anachronistically imposing the Geneva Convention” (158) on the Middle Ages. There were generally accepted rules of warfare but they were significantly different than our modern sensibilities are accustomed to. Consider “the primary rule of siege warfare: ‘He who holds out and is conquered dies.’”[4] Violation of this maxim by means of “prolonged resistance usually meant massacre by an enraged foe.”[5] Thus comparisons of the massacre of Jerusalem when Crusader armies captured it in 1099 to Saladin’s treatment of the Jews and Christians when he recaptured the city in 1187 are unfair. On the surface, the Christians who slaughtered the inhabitants of Jerusalem come off much worse than Saladin when compared to modern standards. However, Stark points out that those defending Jerusalem from the Crusaders resisted the siege (157) whereas those defending it from Saladin surrendered the city to him (200). Both armies were acting in accordance with the standard military procedures of the time…

…The myth of a continual chain of Muslim resentment and anger about the Crusades that directly resulted in modern conflict between the West and the Middle East is also a modern viewpoint that Stark shows to be misinformed. It was in fact not until the nineteenth century that Muslims stopped ignoring the Crusades (246) and not until the twentieth century that anger became the standard response (247).”

These are just a few of the issues Stark tackles in his treatment on the Crusades. To be sure, in some places his analysis is more convincing than others. However, history in general and events like the Crusades in particular call for and deserve a more nuanced examination than “X was good. Y was bad.” Stark’s book is an important conversation starter and a welcome alternative to 1) trying to pretend the Crusades never happened or 2) condemning them as ignorant, barbaric, and unforgivable. The bibliography and the sources he interacts with also offer an excellent set of “next steps” for anyone looking for an even fuller examination of the issues.

As a final note, at no point am I ever suggesting or endorsing that the Crusades were wonderful, amazing, exemplary, etc. I simply offer the suggestion that we should attempt to understand them in their own context and not judge them as what they never were in the first place: a product of our own modern understanding of the world. May future generations give us the same grace when examining the lives we lead and the things we do in the name of God.


[†] Stark, Rodney. God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. New York: Harper One, 2009. All further parenthetical citations refer to Stark’s book.

[1] Christopher Tyerman, The Crusades—A Very Short Introduction, (New York: Oxford Univesity Press, 2005), 10.

[2] Riley-Smith considers this figure to be undoubtedly closer to 2,500,000 livres when the Crusade’s aftermath is taken into account. See Jonathan Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades?, (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977), 45.

[3] Alfred J. Andrea. s.v. “Financing the Crusades,” in Encyclopedia of the Crusades, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009), 114.

[4] Alfred J. Andrea. s.v. “Siege Warfare,” in Encyclopedia of the Crusades, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009), 300.

[5] Ibid

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