Crusades in the Checkout Aisle

(by Dr. Thomas F. Madden)


CRISIS Magazine - e-Letter

April 12, 2002


Dear Reader,

Well, the media is at it again. Last week, as you probably noticed, U.S. News & World Report ran a cover story on the Crusades, promising to tell "the truth about the epic clash between Christianity and Islam."

(Here it is:

Unfortunately, after reading the piece, it was pretty clear that they failed to fulfill that promise.

Coincidentally, the current issue of CRISIS also has a cover story on the Crusades, written by renowned Crusades historian, Dr. Thomas F. Madden. I encourage you to compare the two.

(You can read it here:

Naturally, after reading the U.S. News & World Report piece, I knew we needed to respond. So we went back to Dr. Madden, and asked him to have at it.

That he did. Here it is...


Deal W. Hudson

p.s. Please forward this to anyone you think could use the information. Like me, I know you're tired of hearing the media recycle the same nonsense about the Crusades.


The Crusades in the Checkout Aisle

Thomas F. Madden

When I spied the U.S. News & World Report with the Crusades splashed across its cover, I braced for the worst. As a crusade historian, I long ago learned not to expect accuracy on this subject from the popular media. In fact, I usually avoid newspaper and magazine articles on the Crusades altogether, if only to keep my blood pressure under control. But there it was, staring me in the face. I had to read it.

First, the good news. The article, written by Andrew Curry, was not dreadful. Curry did take the time to phone two distinguished crusade scholars, Jonathan Riley-Smith of Cambridge University and Benjamin Kedar of Hebrew University, who helped him to avoid a few common errors. For example, Curry correctly reports that although scholars once believed that Crusaders were motivated by a mixture of greed and bigotry, we now know that most were led by devout piety and a sincere desire for eternal salvation. He also rightly explains that the modern view of the Crusades in the Middle East is itself modern, the product of Western historians who incorrectly equated medieval Crusades with modern imperialism. So, in these important respects Curry has done a public service by setting the record straight in a mass-market periodical.

Unfortunately, the rest of the article has a number of errors that Riley-Smith and Kedar could have helped him to avoid. It appears that, while Curry was willing to chat with crusade scholars, he was not interested in reading their books. Instead he relies heavily on Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades, a book now half a century out of date, as well as a few popular histories written by non-specialists. The latter include Karen Armstrong's Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World and James Reston, Jr.'s Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade -- both of which are highly readable but not well acquainted with either current research or medieval sources.

It is not necessary to go through all of the errors in this rather rambling piece. It might be instructive to mention a few of the most important, though. On several occasions, Curry refers to the Church's "revolutionary (and doomed) theology" of salvation by violence, which he believes underpinned the idea of Crusade. Riley-Smith is even quoted in such a way that he seems to confirm this contention. But it is not so. The theological innovation of the Crusades was the definition of warfare undertaken selflessly, in good faith, and in the service of Christ and His people as a penitential act. Although new, this was in keeping with other Christian principles such as the spiritually beneficial practice of pilgrimage and almsgiving. In the case of the Crusades, the warriors were undergoing extreme hardships (like a pilgrim) to save the lives of their neighbors oppressed by foreign conquerors. Salvation, therefore, was achieved by self-sacrifice and right intentions, not by violence, which the Church saw only as a necessary precursor to turning back Muslim conquests.

Curry also reports massacres in Jerusalem after the Crusader conquest in 1099 so drastic that the streets ran knee-deep in the blood. He then contrasts that with the Muslim conquest of the city in 1187, when good and sophisticated Saladin killed no one, allowing the inhabitants to leave freely after paying a token ransom. However, no scholars now accept the grossly exaggerated reports of the massacres at Jerusalem in 1099. None of them are from eyewitnesses. The stories of piled -up bodies and rivers of blood come from European chroniclers eager to portray a ritual purification of the city. Muslim sources, although lamenting the deaths, number the dead at only a few thousand. In any case, the killing of defenders who refused to surrender was the accepted standard for both Muslims and Christians in the Middle Ages. Someone at U.S. News & World Report should really take a look at a map of Jerusalem and then calculate how much blood would be necessary to fill the entire city to knee depth. All of the people in the region could not bleed that much.

It is also not true that Saladin spared the lives of the Christians in Jerusalem because he was more tolerant or wise. Saladin actually planned to massacre the Christians in retaliation for 1099. But the defenders negotiated a surrender in which they promised not to harm the Muslim population or the Muslim holy sites in the city in return for the lives of the Christians. In other words, quite unlike 1099, in 1187 the Christians surrendered the city peacefully and thereby saved their lives. Like the Crusaders in 1099, Saladin acted within the accepted standards of his time.

Saladin gets a lot of play in this article since it focuses so heavily on the Third Crusade. The real Superbowl of Crusades, it was the Third Crusade that pitted Saladin against Richard the Lionheart of England. Curry believes that Saladin is ignored by the history books in favor of Richard -- which only demonstrates that Curry needs to read more history books. He also contends that Muslims still remember Saladin well for "his generosity in the face of Christian aggression and hatred." Here Curry has fallen into the trap that he warns his reader about. Modern Muslims learned about the Crusades from Western, not Muslim, historians. The truth is that it is in the West that Saladin has been extolled as a paragon of chivalry since the Middle Ages. Some medieval Europeans even named their children after him! However, in the Muslim world Saladin has always taken a back seat to two other medieval rulers: Baybars and Kalavun. These Egyptian sultans successfully led their slave armies against the Christians of the Crusader Kingdom, brutally crushing all resistance, massacring entire cities after promising to spare their lives, and finally eradicating all traces of the Crusaders in Palestine and Syria. Those are the exploits that are still celebrated in the Middle East, although they are oddly missing from this article.

Following poorly informed popular historians, Curry also gets the legacy of the Crusades wrong. He reports that although the military operations against the Muslims failed, they did give the Europeans a taste of the splendid and sophisticated culture of the East. Soon new luxuries began flowing into Europe and new ideas from well-stocked Arab libraries. Therefore, by peeling back the veil on the wider world the Crusades led directly to Europe leaving the "Dark Ages" and entering the modern world.

All of that is wrong. There was virtually no intellectual or cultural interaction between Muslims and Christians in the Crusader Kingdom. The Christians in the Levant saw themselves as transplants. They were manning an outpost of Christendom in order to defend Christian access to the holy sites. They had no interest in Arab libraries, nor did the Muslims have much interest in the ways of the infidels. While it is true that Aristotle came to the West through Arab translations, those were acquired in Spain where Christians and Muslims did interact. As for the eastern Eastern luxury goods, they arrived in Europe via Egypt or Constantinople -- not the Holy Land. The rise and fall of the Crusader Kingdom had almost no effect on Mediterranean trade between Christians and Muslims. The rise in demand for luxury goods in western Europe was fed by an equivalent internal rise in commerce and towns during the eleventh century. It had little to do with the Crusades.

Curry ends his article by lamenting the Crusade's "legacy of misunderstanding and animosity" that is "still with us today." There was and is animosity between Islam and the West, to be sure. But it predates the Crusades by many centuries. As for misunderstanding, this article, although clearing up a few things, serves to keep that unfortunate tradition alive.

Thomas F. Madden is Chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University and the author of numerous studies on the Crusades. His most recent book is A Concise History of the Crusades (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999).


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