The Crusades: Right and Wrong
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces - four hundred years ago.
It is he who saith not "Kismet"; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey in the gate!
-- G. K. Chesterton, Lepanto
Osama bin Laden calls George W. Bush a "crusader" and, though the Crusades ended over 700 years ago in a complete Moslem victory, lists those medieval campaigns among his many historical grievances against America and the West. His denunciations have naturally called forth a reaction from Christians, who insist that the Crusaders did no more than respond to Islamic aggression that had overrun two-thirds of Christendom and severely threatened the rest. The followers of the Prophet were spreading their faith with the sword, so it was no outrage that Christians riposted with weapons. Furthermore, it is pointed out, Islamic armies ultimately destroyed Outremer and carried Mohammed's banner far beyond the Holy Land. Five centuries after the First Crusade besieged Jerusalem, Moslems held Constantinople and were at the gates of Vienna. To blame any or all of Islam's present day dilemmas on the Crusaders is patently anachronistic.1
It is refreshing to see the Crusades defended, for their reputation has sunk to a low point in many quarters. The accepted image among the chattering classes is of a barbarian incursion, motivated by bigotry and greed, whose primary aim was "ethnic cleansing" of the Near East and the extirpation of its civilized, refined, tolerant and multicultural society. That Europe was the imperialistic aggressor and Dar al-Islam the innocent victim and that the invasions left lasting wounds - indeed, are part of the explanation of the fundamentalist Moslem jihad against the United States - are taken for granted by such deep thinkers as Bill Clinton.
To demonstrate that such fashionable notions are nonsense is not difficult, but the fact that Messrs. bin Laden and Clinton are wrong about the Crusades does not mean that everything about the Crusades was right. Though their objective -stopping the Moslem tide of conquest - had much to recommend it, the Crusaders' strategy was badly conceived and foolishly executed. In the end, they left Christendom in a worse, rather than a better, defensive posture, and it was only later political, demographic and technological developments, by which the West attained decisive military superiority, that saved Christianity from forcible supersession by its hostile offshoot.
Pope Urban launched the crusading movement 25 years after the Byzantine Empire's disastrous defeat at Manzikert. Until that moment, the Empire had been ascending from the depths of the Seventh and Eighth Centuries, when Constantinople had been besieged more than once (by pagan Russians as well as Moslem Arabs) and had seemed unlikely to survive. By the 1050's, a revivified Byzantium was the dominant power in the Middle East, faced with enemies that posed little threat.
Manzikert, a battle lost through incompetence and treachery, changed the picture abruptly. The Empire had suffered setbacks before, but never since the initial Moslem conquests had defeat led to such swift and devastating territorial losses. Moreover, the lost domain was central Anatolia, long the agricultural and population center of the Byzantine state. The Seljuq Turks swept through the region, drove out much the population and devastated its arable land. Thus the Empire's Asian possessions were reduced to a maritime fringe.
The Pope called on Western Christians to go to the aid of their Eastern brethren, quietly ignoring the differences that had led to the mutual excommunications and anathemas promulgated in 1054. The response was widespread and enthusiastic but not well thought out. The Crusaders did not help Byzantium to restore or replace its lost territories but instead headed for the Holy Land, where they established rival mini-states in the conquered lands. Uncooperative with either the Byzantines or each other, the princes of Outremer first strove to add minor slices of land to their small domains, then were forced onto the defensive when their Moslem neighbors united against them. The battle of the Horns of Hattin (1187) broke the Crusaders' power. Thereafter, intermittent European help occasionally led to cosmetic gains, but Outremer ceased to be a threat, or even a nuisance, to Dar al-Islam.
It takes no geopolitical genius to realize that an outpost in the Holy Land endangered Islamic power only if it served as a base for the reconquest of Syria and, especially, Egypt. (The latter's population still had a solid Christian majority; some authorities believe that Egypt was a predominantly Christian country as late as the 1600's.) The early Crusaders had ambitions in those directions but never enough wherewithal to carry them out. Much later, Louis VII of France recognized the importance of Egypt, but by then the Kingdom of Jerusalem was too enfeebled to serve as an effective point d'appui.
There are two ways in which the Holy Land could have been made strategically useful. One possibility was close cooperation with the Byzantine Empire. If, instead of setting up independent realms, the Crusaders had kept their promises to return the area to imperial control, the accession of strength might have enabled Byzantium to resume its interrupted revival.
Alternatively, the new regimes could have made common cause with the local Orthodox Christians, at least a plurality of the population, thus gaining a great addition to their manpower. Instead, the Western immigrants relied almost entirely upon themselves, and they were pitifully few. At their height, "Franks" in the Kingdom of Jerusalem numbered no more than 250,000, a small fraction of the population, and the Kingdom's total mounted force, including the semi-independent military orders, was about 1,200 knights. Immense individual superiority could not forever compensate for the disparity of numbers. After the debacle at Hattin, the Kingdom was literally stripped bare of defenders, and most of its strongholds fell to Saladin without a fight.
The Franks did not merely fail to make use of the Orthodox population but treated them as conquered subjects, particularly in the vital sphere of religion. Orthodox bishops were driven out and replaced by Latin rite prelates, exacerbating existing ill feeling. Ironically, the Jacobites, Armenians and other sects whom Rome regarded as outright heretics were given greater freedom of action and official favor than the merely "schismatic" Orthodox. Meanwhile, the conquerors did not try to convert Moslems to Christianity and were, as the noted bishop William of Tyre lamented, openly hostile toward proselytization.
The Crusaders did worse than just turn their backs on Eastern Christianity. The Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople in 1204, putting an end to the Byzantium as a great power. The Empire split into weak successor states, none of them economically or militarily able to stand up to Turks. When one of the fragments regained the capital 60 years later, the name of "empire" became a facade for a minor Balkan principality. The door to Europe was thrown open. The enduring anti-Latinism that these events engendered in the Orthodox world (to this day, many Greeks remember 1204, and their memories are more genuine and bitter than any Moslem recollection of the First Crusade) guaranteed that the Eastern and Western parts of Christendom would be wary allies,at best, against the Ottoman Sultanate, the last of the great Islamic empires.
Christendom survived that onslaught, but it doubtful that any Christian thanks are due to Richard, Raymond and Godfrey. Rather, the ones doing the thanking should be those with the mindset of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, whose cause might have dwindled to futility in the late Middle Ages, had the Crusaders acted with greater cleverness, or not acted at all.
1. These points are made by Thomas F. Madden, "Crusade Propaganda" and John Debyshire, "Crusading They Went". Debyshire mentions Alfred Duggan's historical novels and makes use of Knight With Armor, a tale of the First Crusade from the rank-and-file point of view, in his argument. Some of Duggan's other novels, if read carefully, illustrate the failure of the Crusaders to understand or assist the beleaguered Othodox. Well worth reading, if one can find them, are Count Bohemond (the First Crusade from the leaders' perspective), The Lady for Ransom (about the warlord Roussel de Balliol, who did much to hinder Byzantine recovery) and Lord Geoffrey's Fancy (the little-remembered story of the Crusaders in Greece). For a factual account of the invaders' treatment of their co-religionists (and of much else about Outremer), I recommend The Crusaders' Kingdom by Joshua Prawer, recently reissued by Phoenix Press.