The Crusades are often cited as the prime example of the evils of religion and of Christianity specifically. The picture is often painted of an innocent world on which Christians came in violent fervor, raping and pillaging as they went. But this picture of the Crusades is inaccurate on a number of levels. Here, I’ll explore the historical context of the Crusades with an eye towards seeing why they occurred. I’ll wrap it up with a discussion on violence and religion.
The Historical Context of the Crusades
The Crusades were not just some bubbling up of violence latent within all religions. Instead, they were part of a history of conquest across the Asian and European continents. Prior to the Crusades, there was a sweeping conquest by the Muslims of territory formerly possessed by various Christian nations.
Muslim invasions had pressed in on all sides. Rodney Stark, in his extremely important work on the Crusades, God’s Battalions, notes the conquests which had pressed in on Europe from all sides. After surveying a number of Muslim conquests, he notes:
Many critics of the Crusades would seem to suppose that after the Muslims had overrun a major portion of Christendom, they should have been ignored or forgiven… This outlook is certainly unrealistic and probably insincere. Not only had the Byzantines lost most of their empire, the enemy was at their gates… (32-33)
Prior to the Crusades, it is absolutely essential to note that the invaders were, quite literally, at the gates. Constantinople was threatened in the East, and Spain was overthrown in the West. Europe was under assault. The map below illustrates the situation in the time during and before the Crusades well.
The question of the Crusades must be understood within this historical setting: much of the land which European countries had controlled had been taken, by force. Furthermore, those who had taken these lands were knocking on the very gates of Europe, having already crossed into Europe in many places. Stark’s words, therefore, seem to ring true: is it really genuine to assume that these invaders should have been ignored or forgiven? Is that the reality of “secular” nations? It seems to me the very fact that so much land had been lost, as well as so much wealth, would lead many to war for “secular” reasons rather than religious reasons.
Regarding the beginning of the Crusades, Stark writes:
[T]hat’s when it all [The Crusades] started–in the seventh century, when Islamic armies swept over the larger portion of what was then Christian territory: the Middle East, Egypt, and all of North Africa, and then Spain and southern Italy, as well as many major Mediterranean islands including Sicily, Corsica, Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, Malta, and Sardinia. (9)
So the Crusades were not unprovoked mass murders of innocents. But they were indeed quite brutal, and involved no small amount of very un-Christian activities. Raping and pillaging has no part in the Christian worldview. But Stark once again has a sobering point: war was hell. “[I]t was a brutal and intolerant age” (29). The criticism of brutality equally applies to both sides, but it is also equally anachronistic about the realities of that time. This is not to say that the horrors which occurred were not awful; it is to say that to criticize the Crusaders or Muslims as though they were doing something extraordinarily brutal for their time period is extremely short-sighted.
The Crusades as a Polemic Device
The Crusades were not all-good or all-evil affairs. Like virtually any part of human history, both good and evil intentions and outcomes were involved. To view the Crusades as either an entirely evil affair showing how religion is ultimately prone to violence or as a benevolent attempt by loving people to liberate lands that were rightfully theirs is to grossly oversimplify the historical reality. Unfortunately, modern looks at the Crusades have largely leaned towards the former of these positions, without any acknowledgement of the historical context as noted above.
Instead, the Crusades were a complex of historical events which were often brutal, often provoked, and never motivated for just one reason. To say that the Crusades are a typical example of the violence of religion is, frankly, ahistorical. Was religion involved? Yes. Were there even “religious reasons” involved in the motivations for the Crusades? Clearly. But the general movement with recent attacks on Christianity has been to argue that the Crusades were purely religious instances of religious brutality. The historical perspective provided above provides evidence against that limited perspective.
The Crusades have been used as a kind of polemic device against Christianity. Whenever it is argued that Christianity is reasonable, someone inevitably brings up this historical period. Readers will note that this historical perspective has not attempted to explain away the Crusades. Instead, I have argued for the notion that these events were historically complex, involving a number of factors beyond purely war for the sake of a faith.
As Keith Ward has noted:
It is… beyond dispute that the Crusades were a major disaster… The Crusades can be seen as justified defense… but their conduct and continuance rapidly became unjustifiable on any Christian principles. (68-69, Is Religion Dangerous? cited below)
The point is simple: there were many motivations behind the Crusades, some of them justified. Yet in carrying out the Crusades, many horrible actions were taken which were unjustifiable. Does this somehow disprove Christianity? Not on Christianity’s own principles, on which we expect to see people acting as sinner-saints in the process of sanctification.
Apart from the historical outline given here, there is another, equally important point: the dichotomy between religious violence and secular violence is simply a myth. The reason for this is because human actions are far more complex in their motivations than a simple dichotomy of one or the other reason. In our everyday experience, we know that the decisions we make are very rarely made for only one reason.
Oddly, Stark is able to note that “many historians have urged entirely material, secular explanations for the early Muslim conquests…” (13). This, in contrast to the many historians and new atheists who continue to press that the Crusades were entirely religious in their provocations. The unfortunate truth this reveals is the very human tendency to simplify history beyond the point of breaking. Human actions, particularly corporate human actions, have extremely complex motivations behind them. They are not all-or-nothing affairs which happen due to one reason or another. Very often we make decisions for a combination of reasons of differing strengths, weighing options against each other whether we realize it or not.
By utilizing the Crusades as a rhetorical device–a polemic weapon–many have done damage to the historical events themselves. Worse, they have engaged in faulty reasoning and attacked the religious other due to their own emotional hatred. The Crusades were not all-good or all-evil affairs. They were affairs of human history. To forget that is to drown them in a sea of obfuscation. Let us get beyond simple polemical attacks on the “other.” Let us instead engage in honest history and dialogue with our neighbors.
The Myth of “Religion”: Constructing the Other as an enemy– I explore the notion that religion is violent and argue that one of the major difficulties with this notion is that the distinction between secular/religious is a myth.
For an interesting exploration of some aspects of Muslim Philosophy, see my book review: The Closing of the Muslim Mind.
Essential reading: Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions (New York: HarperOne, 2009).
Pacifism, Matthew 5, and “Turning the other cheek”– Glenn Andrew Peoples discusses pacifism in the Christian tradition and some of the arguments in its favor. Ultimately, he finds these arguments wanting.
Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions (New York: HarperOne, 2009).
Keith Ward, Is Religion Dangerous? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006).
The image of the map is from this page with free resources for instructors. I do not claim credit for this image, nor do I claim that the makers of this resource in any way endorse this post.
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