Saturday, January 06, 2007

Epilogue: Afterthoughts on the Crusades

"The modern criticism of the crusades derives principally from a widespread belief that they were evil precisely because they were wars of religion. This may seem surprising when we consider the twentieth century's far more destructive wars and the millions who died in them for patriotic nationalism or devotion to political ideology." (Thomas Madden, The Crusades: The Essential Readings, p 1)
It makes no more sense to criticize the medieval crusades for being wars of religion than to fault modern warfare for being political. Neither does it mean much that Jesus would have been horrified by the crusades. Jesus would be shocked at almost everything done in his name over the past two millenia -- whether violent or not -- and the idea that he was consistently non-violent is misleading anyway. The holy wars can certainly be criticized, but the question of their relation to the historical Jesus isn't terribly relevant.

The crusading reformers were doing what all reformers do, and what they should have done: reinterpret the scriptures in light of contemporary crises. But what did the crusades accomplish? On the positive side, they helped pull Europe out of a backwater anarchy, channeled aggression outwards instead of inwards, and reformed a class of knights who had been taught their profession was evil. They also put Europe in touch with more advanced civilization, which would lead directly to the Renaissance. Hospices flourished, with increased care for the poor and diseased. The downside is that they fed xenophobia against Islam, reignited the fires of the jihad -- the effects of which are felt to this day -- and led to perversions of crusading against Jews and eastern Christians.

We can respect the crusaders from a distance, without endorsing what they did per se. They were neither colonizers nor greedy boors, but sincere guardians of holy places and their salvation. Their outlook made perfect sense in the context of medieval Christendom. Catherine of Siena is one of those cited on The Pacifist Memorial, but few realize that this pacifist went out of her way to start a crusade and supported crusading in general. That's no more oxymoronic than a modern pacifist who endorses killing in one's self-defense. Holy wars were penitential, distinguished from the standard (or even just) warfare used to settle political disputes -- as sharply as we distinguish killing in self-defense from murder.

As a secularist with pacifist leanings, I find myself in the odd position of defending medieval Christians who believed so much in bloodshed. But "wars destroy and create, even if in unequal measures," writes Christopher Tyerman (God's War, p 921), and Europe may well have ended up worse if not for the crusades.

Bibliography to this series

Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land. Eco Press. 2010.
--- The First Crusade: A New History. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Hallam, Elizabeth (edt). Chronicles of the Crusades: Eyewitness Accounts of the Wars Between Christianity and Islam. Welcome Rain Press, 2000.

Maalouf, Amin. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. Re-issue edition. Schocken Press, 1989.

Madden, Thomas. The Crusades: The Essential Readings. Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

Payne, Robert. The Dream and the Tomb. Cooper Square Press, 1984.

Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Atlas of the Crusades. Swanston Publishing Limited, 1991.
--- The Crusades: A Short History. Yale University Press, 1987.
--- What Were the Crusades? 3rd edition. Ignatius Press, 2002.

Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades. 3 vols. Cambridge University Press, 1951.

Tyerman, Christopher. Fighting for Christendom. Oxford University Press, 2004.
--- God's War: A New History of the Crusades. Belknap Press, 2006.


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