The Crusades happened almost a thousand years ago—why do they still provoke an argument? Osama bin Laden has used them to attempt to rally the Islamic world to his cause; President Bush has called the war on terrorism a "crusade." But what is the truth about the Crusades? Were they motivated by savage greed and intolerance or by pious idealism? Were they an unprovoked attack by the West on the Islamic world or a reaction to centuries of Islamic incursions? How should we understand the legacy of the Crusades today, in a time of conflict between the West and radical Islamic terrorists?
Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: they happened centuries ago, but they can still start a brawl today--the Crusades.
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Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the glorious Crusades, or should that be, infamous Crusades? Four days after the terrorist attack of September 11th, President Bush said, and I quote, "This crusade might take a while." The President's use of the word "crusade" provoked a storm of criticism from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Evidently the very word "crusade" is now politically incorrect, evoking, if the President's critics are to be believed, images of medieval Christians slaughtering Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land. But what is the historical truth of the Crusades? Were they motivated by greed and intolerance or by idealism? Did they represent an unprovoked attack by Christian Europe on the world of Islam, or instead a defensive reaction by Christian Europe to centuries of incursion from the world of Islam? And how are we to understand the legacy of the Crusades today now that the West is engaged in a conflict with radical Islamisists?
Joining us, two guests. William Hamblin is a Professor of History at Brigham Young University. Thomas Madden is a Professor of History at Saint Louis University and author of the book, A Concise History of The Crusades.
Title: Cross Purposes
Peter Robinson: Former President Bill Clinton speaking of terrorism, quote, "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 a Muslim on the Temple Mount. I can tell you that story is still being told today in the Middle East and we are still paying for it." The Crusades, as an act of savagery, even terrorism. Is that accurate, Bill?
Bill Hamblin: I think there's some accurate elements to it. I think it can be exaggerated and I think one problem is by the standards of the day, when a city resisted siege and was conquered, the conquerors had rights of pillage. And so it wasn't an extraordinary or an unusual response to have massacres and plundering in conquests.
Peter Robinson: Those were, in effect, the rules so that the incentive was...
Bill Hamblin: Those were the rules of war, everybody knew.
Peter Robinson: If an army lays siege, you'd better surrender if you don't want to face real savagery.
Bill Hamblin: Right, exactly.
Thomas Madden: I would point out though that the idea that there was this blood bath after Jerusalem fell in 1099, has been pretty heavily modified by recent scholarship.
Peter Robinson: Modified in what direction?
Thomas Madden: Well, modified down. There's now--first of all the sources, the medieval sources which talk about the conquest of Jerusalem are all second or third hand and they're coming from, mostly from Europe. There are one or two from the Muslim side.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Thomas Madden: And they speak of three thousand, approximately, people being killed. But not, as you get the western sources, where they speak of rivers of blood, that people are wading through rivers of blood, show up all the time in the Middle Ages, but they're not real. But nevertheless, there was a massacre. As for the Jewish synagogue, what appears to be the case there, it probably happened, people have argued about it, but this was not a situation in which the Crusaders would have rounded up all the Jews and put them in the synagogue and said now we're burning it down because you are Jews in a synagogue. Rather, the Jews who were the Jewish defenders, and there weren't that many, but those Jewish defenders of the city in 1099, knew the rules of the game. They knew that their lives were forfeit now, and so they wanted to go to their synagogue and were allowed to go to their synagogue…
Peter Robinson: To prepare for death.
Thomas Madden: To prepare for death, that's right.
Bill Hamblin: They also killed a number of Christians as well because they simply couldn't distinguish a Christian from a Muslim from a Jew within the context of dress or behavior or all sorts of different things.
Peter Robinson: Next important question, were the Crusades offensive or defensive in nature?
Title: Onward Christian Soldiers
Peter Robinson: Osama Bin Laden, in all his taped speeches, continues to warn his followers that the West is intent on a new crusade against--he uses the phrase, "the abode of Islam." So he clearly holds the view that the Crusades were an aggressive move by Christian Western Europe against the Muslim world. On the other hand, I give you Thomas Madden. I quote you, "The entire history of the Crusades is one of Western reaction to Muslim advances. The Crusades were no more offensive than was the American invasion of Normandy." Bill, are you going to go for that?
Bill Hamblin: From the Crusader perspective, they were defending Christendom. This was a concept of Christianity, which we don't really have anymore. And so they were perceiving that this was, you know, the birthplace of Christianity. This is something that should be in Christian hands. On the other hand from the Muslim perspective, this is land that they had ruled for four hundred years and so how many centuries do you need before the land is--the ownership is transferred?
Peter Robinson: When Mohammed appears on the scene, in the middle of the Seventh Century, what we think of today as the Middle East, all of Northern Africa, Anatolia or what we think of today as Turkey, all of that is Christian at the time.
Thomas Madden: That's right.
Peter Robinson: And so from the moment he appears in the middle of the Seventh Century until--well for the first three centuries, it's conquest after conquest after conquest, isn't that generally correct?
Bill Hamblin: That's right.
Peter Robinson: So that the Muslims take what we now think of as the Middle East, they sweep across North Africa, conquer Spain, get as far--they get through the Pyrenees and raid France, isn't that right?
Bill Hamblin: They raid into France, right.
Peter Robinson: And then there's this immediate, or the kind of proximate action is the conquering of Anatolia.
Thomas Madden: That was the initial reason for the Crusades. The Christians in the east asked the west for assistance.
Peter Robinson: Christians in the east, so we're talking about the Byzantine Empire centered in Constantinople, continuity with Rome, and it was the most prestigious in the Christian world, the greatest and most prestigious city.
Thomas Madden: And they asked for help from the West. The West then responded. And it was very much--there's a lot that goes into the Crusades, but that desire, which they saw as an act of brotherly love. In other words, responding to the needs of your friends or your brothers, people you didn't know. Now they were also interested, if possible, in going further, ultimately hoping to make it to Jerusalem. Those are really the two things which drive the Crusades.
Peter Robinson: So they want to protect, shore up, the Byzantine Empire--what we think of today as the Byzantine Empire, eastern Christianity, they want to recapture Jerusalem, the Holy Land, and if possible they wanted even to move into--take Damascus, is that the idea?
Thomas Madden: Eventually they'll try, but the initial Crusade, they're not interested in going that far.
Peter Robinson: So what about Bill's point which is to say the world of Muslim had existed but for three and a half centuries at that point, and at some point you have to say, well it's ours, we've had it for centuries now, right? In other words, the Muslim point of view is entirely understandable.
Thomas Madden: Sure, if I saw Crusaders coming down over the hill, or saw someone else coming to take land away from me that had been mine for some time, I would consider them to be aggressors. But the defensive action from the west's point of view, the Crusades existed not as an attempt to expand Christianity or to conquer territories that were Muslim the way that the Muslim jihad did, but rather it existed to reclaim lands that had been Christian.
Peter Robinson: Let's get a little more background on the Crusades and compare the Christian and Islamic worlds of one thousand years ago.
Title: A Long Time Ago On a Continent Far Far Away
Peter Robinson: As compared to the unity and prosperity of Rome, western Europe at this period is politically relatively chaotic; it's poor--the level of education is lower than it was during the Roman period. Whereas by contrast, you got the Arabic world experiencing its golden age. In Spain, the Arab city of Cordoba has a population of half a million--Paris at the time thirty six thousand or so--seven hundred mosques, seventy libraries, nine hundred public baths, a huge, rich, cultured city. So the question is, how did the western Europeans, the Christians, pull it off? They established the kingdom of Jerusalem, the principality of Antioch, the counties of Odessa and Tripoli, and they managed to hold onto chunks of it for almost two centuries. How?
Bill Hamblin: The key I think was the fragmentation of the Islamic world politically. They were divided first of all religiously into two opposing Caliphates--Shiite in Egypt…
Peter Robinson: Tell me what a caliph is.
Bill Hamblin: The caliphs were the successors to Mohammed. They, in theory, were supposed to be the rulers of the entire Islamic community. Now in practice by this time the Caliphate had declined in authority and they were more figureheads, they had religious, legal and political authority, but it was--they were often puppets of military cliques that controlled the area.
Peter Robinson: And the great divide between Suni and Shiite takes place when?
Bill Hamblin: It begins in, really right after the death of Mohammed. And the issue is who should succeed Mohammed. There were different factions supporting different successors. The Shiites supported Ali who was Mohammed's son-in-law and cousin and nearest male relative. The Sunis supported more democratic elective process by which the most righteous man was chosen to head the Islamic community. And so this schism remains underground for a while, eventually breaks into the open, and by the time of the Crusades, you had a Shiite group ruling Egypt and the Sunis ruling Syria and Mesopotamia and they were in serious conflict. In addition to that, political control had fragmented within the Levant or the Israel--today, the Israel, Lebanon, Syria region--and you essentially had a bunch of city-states that were feuding amongst each other. And the Crusaders really came at the right moment. If they had come twenty, thirty years earlier, they may have faced a united--a much more powerful Islamic opposition. But they came at the moment of real weakness in that area, which permitted them to take city by city rather than facing major opposition.
Peter Robinson: And what about an element of surprise? Was it known in the Islamic world that there was force on its way?
Thomas Madden: I think that there was a lot of surprise up until they reached say Antioch, which is--what would today be in northern Syria, just north of Syria. Up until that point, the Turks tended to not take the Crusaders too seriously because the idea that that many soldiers could have marched that far without lines of supplies or a real command structure of any type, seemed rather unbelievable.
Peter Robinson: Does it strike you from the vantage point of a thousand years that it was a really astonishing enterprise?
Thomas Madden: It's astonishing to me.
Peter Robinson: Do you agree?
Bill Hamblin: Absolutely, that's why they considered it such a miracle. That in a sense, enhanced their religious conception of God leading and guiding and protecting.
Peter Robinson: Back to the question of motivations.
Title: Thanne Longen Folk to Goon on Pilgrimages
Peter Robinson: There is a religious motivation, you'd grant that as well--on the part of the Crusaders?
Bill Hamblin: Absolutely.
Peter Robinson: And it's actually formalized, is it not? The Pope says if you--indulgence…
Thomas Madden: Later.
Peter Robinson: Not immediately?
Thomas Madden: The first Crusade is cast more as you are doing a righteous deed and you are pilgrims. It was canonically related to pilgrimage. These were--when the Crusader took the Cross, he was essentially becoming a pilgrim. In fact, they called each other pilgrims. The word "crusade" is modern. They called each other "pilgrims" and they called the entire movement "a pilgrimage." And they were going to the holy sites, it was just they were bringing twenty thousand of their well-armed friends with them who were also all pilgrims. And that was the driving force of all Crusades. That's why Crusades…
Peter Robinson: The driving force was the religious motivation.
Thomas Madden: The religious motivation to go--to do good work on earth, but also to gain the indulgence, which was associated with the pilgrimage.
Peter Robinson: And yet you know of course that the charge is that it was greed, that these were younger sons--the Crusades tended to be led by younger sons of noble families, people who would not be inheriting back at home, and they were marching off hoping to get estates for themselves, as indeed many of them did. They conquered land, set up a feudal enterprise, a feudal system just like the one back home in Europe. Do you grant that that was a motivation or the establishment of a couple of feudal states there along the Mediterranean was a by-product or they only thought of it once they got there?
Bill Hamblin: For some of them that was a primary motivation probably. For others, they didn't conceptualize the difference between going on a pilgrimage and gaining worldly blessings. I mean why wouldn't God bless us with worldly benefits as well? But most of them probably didn't conceptualize it that way because most of them went home after the first Crusade ended--they just left.
Thomas Madden: After each one of these Crusades, in fact, that became part of the problem of the kingdom of Jerusalem was that Crusades would come with thousands of troops. They would do what they had said they were going to do and then as soon as it was over with, they all went home.
Peter Robinson: So who stayed? How was it decided who stayed?
Thomas Madden: It was a very small group who stayed--those who could or those who for whatever reason wanted to.
Peter Robinson: And did they stay out of a kind of land grab mentality or because they felt some…
Thomas Madden: A few did.
Peter Robinson: …force needed to be left behind to protect what had been won?
Bill Hamblin: Well, all human actions have complex, multiple, psychological causes and some of them stayed for purely religious reasons, some for purely monetary, and most of them probably for a mix of both, that they saw that they could, you know, survive, get some land, and so forth in the Holy Land.
Thomas Madden: Modern scholarship though has completely debunked the idea of the second son theory. The work that's been done now using computers and databases and such, we now know with charter studies, that it was really the first sons of Europe that went on Crusades--that crusading was exceptionally expensive, really only the powerful lords could afford it. Many families impoverished themselves, spending two, three, four, ten times their annual incomes to do it. And therefore the second sons, if they came, they came with their older brothers. But they were not--it was not part of the land grab.
Peter Robinson: I just can't get anything from you of what is in the popular media, which is that they were greedy, they were savage, they were out to conquer territory. There just doesn't--I'm not getting any of that from either of you.
Thomas Madden: Well it was a war and these were brutal--they could be very brutal men.
Peter Robinson: Very brutal men, but by the standards of their own day, just how savage were the Crusaders?
Title: It Takes a Pillage
Peter Robinson: Amin Maalouf, author of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, describing the Christian conquest of Cyprus in 1156, quote, "All the island's cultivated fields were systematically ravaged, women were raped, old men and children slaughtered, rich men taken as hostages, poor men beheaded." Pope Innocent III to participants in the Fourth Crusade, "Nothing has been sacred to you. You have violated married women, widows, even nuns." Things were pretty rough. By the standards of their day, how savage were they?
Bill Hamblin: I think they were about average.
Peter Robinson: About average.
Bill Hamblin: They weren't exceptionally--there were no exceptional atrocities in the Crusades, given the standards of the age. Another thing you've got to note…
Peter Robinson: So this business of ripping up fields and slaughtering, that's just the way things went when a land was conquered in those days, is that right?
Bill Hamblin: A lot of what is described there is hyperbole too. That is it's intentional exaggeration for propagandistic purposes one way or the other.
Peter Robinson: Along the lines of "rivers of blood." There's a certain metaphorical element.
Bill Hamblin: It's not that atrocities didn't occur, it's just they're frequently exaggerated. We've got the same problem with Arab-Israeli relations right now. War is extremely messy and to get a clear understanding of what happens and why it happens is extremely difficult today, let alone trying to do it from sources that are centuries old.
Peter Robinson: By the standards of the time, about average, do you go with that?
Thomas Madden: Yeah, I think it's interesting though that both of those cases that you just cited that the victims were Christian--Cyprus was a Christian island and this was the attacks by Reynald of Chatillon, and then in 1204, Constantinople was the greatest Christian city in the world. And so the victims in fact, in both of those were Christians. In both cases, what happened was wrong even by the times. Now the savagery may be pretty…
Peter Robinson: Tell me about the sack of Constantinople in 1204--just set the scene and tell me briefly what happened.
Thomas Madden: Fourth Crusade went to Constantinople because it was low on money trying to get to Egypt. When they arrived…
Peter Robinson: They wanted to emperor to bail them out.
Thomas Madden: The emperor--there was a new emperor who wanted to be emperor and he promised to pay them an awful lot of money if they went there and helped him out. They did the job, he paid them about half of what he owed them, and told them to go away. They got upset and they therefore attacked the city to get their money back.
Peter Robinson: And this is, according to every historian, even modern scho--nobody doubts that this was a catastrophe in the life of Constantinople, that although the final conquering of Constantinople by Muslims doesn't take place until 1453, the city never really recovers from the sack by western Christians in 1204.
Thomas Madden: That's true.
Peter Robinson: And so what you have then is at least one proof probative that the Crusades were nothing but rabble in motion. Bill?
Bill Hamblin: This is a particular case where the political situation, the religious animosity between Latin and Greek Christians, the feuds between the leaders, how are we going to get the money to get to Jerusalem, all these different things connected together in a real, you know, terrible catastrophe that ends up with the sack of Constantinople. Nobody really intended to do that, that wasn't the plan. The plan was to go to Jerusalem.
Thomas Madden: The men who ran the Fourth Crusade tried their best to make it so that wouldn't happen. It had actually been trying to bring the east and the west closer together that caused the Fourth Crusade--the idea that we will help you, you will help us, we will both work together on the Crusade and that the sack of Constantinople was really one of the most shameful in history.
Peter Robinson: Next topic, how successful were the Crusaders at meeting their own goals?
Title: Urban's Renewal Project
Peter Robinson: Item one, they wanted to recapture Jerusalem. They did, but they held Jerusalem for only 88 years. Was it worth it?
Bill Hamblin: The key here was free access of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. That became more difficult because of the Crusades. I mean it became more difficult for Latins to have pilgrimage in Jerusalem. So, in terms of that goal, they probably failed and it was a mistake.
Peter Robinson: Eighty-eight years.
Thomas Madden: I don't think it can be judged really based on how long--that's how they judged it, but I think in the long-term, the Crusades has to be judged more on, was it successful in slowing the advance of Muslim conquests.
Peter Robinson: That's the third one I want to get to, here's the second one--here's the second one, defending the Christian east, in other words, the Byzantine Empire. As we've seen, they sack Constantinople in 1204, the city never really recovers, and it's all captured within two and a half centuries by the Muslims anyway. So the Crusades just did no good at all in that regard, is that fair?
Bill Hamblin: The Muslims were the big winners in Anatolia in the long run. In the short run, there was some substantial gains for the Byzantines, but it was…
Peter Robinson: Short.
Bill Hamblin: Short-term.
Peter Robinson: Short-term.
Thomas Madden: It's an irony of the Crusades that although they were created to come to the aide of the Christian east and the hope was that east and west could come together again, that they actually ended up closing an iron door between the two. After 1204, the feelings of betrayal in the east among Orthodox Christians would remain long after it was over with, and still remain today.
Peter Robinson: Halting the advance of Islam, in the words of Steven Runciman, the great historian of the Crusades of the Twentieth Century, quote, "When Pope Urban preached the First Crusade, the Turks seemed about to threaten the Bosphorus. When Pope Pious II preached the last Crusades, the Turks were crossing the Danube." The Crusades failed.
Thomas Madden: I think had there been no Crusades, and had these Muslim empires been able to continue unimpeded, then it would have been going far beyond the Danube. The Crusades, even when they failed, they forced the Muslim empires to have to expend energy. Even those Crusades that never got off the ground forced them to expend energy to defend themselves against these. And ultimately in the big picture what the Crusades are is this defense of Christendom, the attempt to try to slow down these conquests and to preserve what had become a fairly small slice of the world that was still Christian. And I think in that respect, the Crusades bought time for Western Europe, time that it needed.
Peter Robinson: The effect on Islam, historian Peter Mansfield, quote, "The most disastrous effect of the Crusades on the Islamic heartland was Islam's retreat into isolation."
Bill Hamblin: There's some elements of truth to that, but I don't think it was the Crusades that caused the inward turning of the Muslim world so much. But it's true that in the long run, the Muslim worldview ceases to be one of expansion of trade and geographical knowledge and things like that and it does turn inward in the long run. So--but it's--there are many other factors which contributed to this phenomenon, not the least of which was the shift in trade routes around Africa and the discovery of new world sources of gold and silver for example, which caused tremendous inflation across the world and therefore caused economic problems in the near east--things like that.
Peter Robinson: Last topic, the enduring legacy of the Crusades.
Title: The Campaign of Terror
Peter Robinson: Do the Crusades have any relevance to the conflict, this war on terrorism today, do they help to explain it or is it--Osama Bin Laden talks about it but it's actually nonsense, he's wrong about it as a historical matter.
Bill Hamblin: As a historical issue, he's probably wrong, but that's not the real issue. The issue is the perception of those who are opposed to the west of what the Crusades is and how it relates to what's going on today. That perception is real and they act on that perception whether…
Peter Robinson: And powerful, that's an important part of culture today in the Muslim world.
Bill Hamblin: Exactly, for the Muslims, the Crusades are a current issue. For us it's kind of a dead issue, it's something from the past and it doesn't really apply to modern world, we don't think in those terms anymore. But for the Muslim world, whether rightly or wrongly, what they see is European imperialism and current affairs going on now as a continuation of the attempt of the West, of Christendom to impose its will on the Islamic world.
Peter Robinson: Let me give you summing up time. Steven Runciman, his summing up, quote, "In the long sequence"--apart from anything else, it's beautiful writing--"In the long sequence of interaction and fusion between Orient and Occident, out of which our civilization has grown, the Crusades were a tragic and destructive episode. High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self righteousness, and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God." Tom, tragic and destructive?
Thomas Madden: Sure, all human enterprises have tragic and destructive elements to them. I think if we looked at, for example, World War II, we could find tragic things which occurred in it--very destructive, fire bombing at Dresden, but it doesn't mean that the Nazis should have been allowed to continue to expand. So in the case…
Peter Robinson: Do you wish they had never happened?
Thomas Madden: In my estimation, had there been no Crusades, I think that it's quite likely that the Muslim empires would have achieved what was their dream, which was to conquer all of Christendom and there was only--you have to remember Sixteenth Century…
Peter Robinson: Despite all the besmirching of this, that, and the other that was taking place, the west was fighting for its survival and achieved at least that much.
Thomas Madden: Certainly by the Fourteenth Century their back was against the wall--Crusades were the only way they could defend themselves.
Peter Robinson: Bill?
Bill Hamblin: In the period in which the main Crusades occurred to Jerusalem, Islam was not a threat to Western Europe at that time. They were a threat to the Byzantine Empire. You know the threat to Europe--to Western Europe, came much later with the rise of the Ottoman Turks in the Sixteenth Century and their--Fifteenth and Sixteenth--and their invasions of Europe.
Peter Robinson: Do you wish they'd never happened?
Bill Hamblin: I wish that both Muslims and Christians in the Middle Ages had been able to live together and I know that's a pure fantasy given that we can't live together today.
Peter Robinson: Bill Hamblin, Thomas Madden, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson, for Uncommon Knowledge, thank you for joining us.