CROSS PURPOSES: The Crusades
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?
Filmed on April 22, 2002
Professor of History, Brigham Young University.
Associate Professor of History and Department Chair, Saint Louis University; Author, A Concise History of the Crusades.
Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: they happened centuries ago,
but they can still start a brawl today--the Crusades.
Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin
Foundation and the Starr Foundation.
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
Peter Robinson: Next important question, were the Crusades offensive or defensive
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Bill Hamblin: A lot of what is described there is hyperbole too. That is it's
intentional exaggeration for propagandistic purposes one way or
Peter Robinson: Along the lines of "rivers of blood." There's a certain
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
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
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
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
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
Peter Robinson: And powerful, that's an important part of culture today in the
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.