In the wake of President Obama's infelicitous comments during the National Prayer Breakfast tacitly implicating Christianity in atrocities during the Crusades I decided to undertake a re-reading of Rodney Stark's excellent work on the Crusades titled God's Battalions.
Stark points out, and documents, that contrary to popular mythology and perhaps the president's understanding of them, the Crusades were not motivated by greed and a desire to pillage. Nor were they wars of imperialism waged by brutal Europeans against peaceful and gentle Muslims. Nor did the crusaders seek to convert the population or oppress them. Nor were the crusaders colonists who turned the recaptured cities in what is today Syria and Israel into cash cows for Europe. Indeed, there was very little wealth to be had in Arab lands and the financial and other personal costs incurred by the crusaders in their mission to free the Holy Land was immense. As Stark observes, the flow of wealth during the two centuries of crusader rule went very much from Europe to the Middle East, not the other way around. The Crusades were, in fact, wars of self-defense undertaken at enormous risk, cost, and suffering to the crusaders, after centuries of Muslim torture, slaughter, and conquest of Christian cities and pilgrims. Their entire purpose seems to have been to liberate the Holy Land from the terrorism of the Muslims and make it safe for Christian pilgrims to journey there.
The expeditions stretched over a span of two centuries, roughly from 1097 - 1289 and were amazingly successful in military terms. Much larger Muslim forces were no match for the technological superiority and disciplined forces of the outnumbered crusaders who had traveled some 2500 miles on foot to reach the Holy Land. Indeed, the crusaders were much more likely to fall victim to disease, deprivation, and betrayal by the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople than to Muslim armies. They ultimately failed to hold on to their gains in the Middle East because their European supporters grew weary of the investment it took to supply them thousands of miles away.
Perhaps more to the point of this post, there were three events that occurred during the Crusades that some historians point to as proof of crusader savagery and barbarism, and of the Church's complicity in their crimes, but Stark explains that those events, while tragic, are more complex than some historians admit.
The first was the slaughter of the Rhineland Jews by German crusaders enroute to the Middle East. This was a horrific crime, but it's simplistic to think that it was an instance of Christian persecution of Jews. As a relatively small force of German crusaders began their trek through the Rhine valley on their way to the Holy Land they massacred Jews in a number of cities along the way. The knights who perpetrated these atrocities were confronted in every town by bishops of the Church who, at much personal risk, hid Jews and sought to protect them from the ghastly violence. Moreover, the slaughters were strongly condemned by the pope, though he was unfortunately powerless to prevent them. The Germans who murdered the Jews were themselves almost completely wiped out when they reached Hungary by Hungarian knights, a denouement which most European Christians believed to be condign punishment delivered from heaven for the crimes these men had committed in the Rhineland.
The second event was the massacre of Muslims that followed the taking of Jerusalem during the First Crusade in the summer of 1099. This massacre, Stark writes, "has been used again and again to vilify the crusaders," but "it is not only absurd, but quite disingenuous to use this event to 'prove' that the crusaders were bloodthirsty barbarians in contrast to the more civilized and tolerant Muslims." Dozens of cities in the region had been completely destroyed and their inhabitants beheaded, tortured, or sold into slavery by Muslims in the years leading up to the Crusade. Moreover, the prevailing rule of warfare at the time was that if a city surrendered when beseiged the inhabitants would be spared, but if they refused to surrender and instead forced the attackers to take it through combat, and thus sustain high casualties, the inhabitants could expect to be slain. Stark suggests that had the Muslims surrendered before the scaling towers were rolled against the walls the resulting blood-letting would not have happened, but they did not. This rule of seige warfare may seem barbaric to us, but all sides abided by it in the eleventh century (although Muslim forces regularly violated it and several times massacred all the inhabitants of cities that had surrendered to them).
The third event was the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. Constantinople was an ostensibly Christian city (Greek Orthodox) which makes the destruction of it by European Christian crusaders difficult to understand, until one reads the history. By 1204 the Byzantine emperors at Constantinople had repeatedly betrayed crusader armies traversing their territory enroute to the Holy Land with the result that tens of thousands of crusaders and their families perished. Moreover, the Byzantines themselves in the course of internecine warfare plundered their capital for three days in 1081. In 1182 the emperor had all Latin Christians in the city put to the sword resulting in the deaths of thousands of women, children and elderly - many more dead than were believed to have been killed when the crusaders, betrayed once more by the Byzantine emperor and under attack by his navy, finally had had enough and attacked the city. The city fell, about two thousand of the 150,000 residents were killed and much of the many art treasures were plundered. It is this last that has outraged some historians more than the deaths of the inhabitants of the city.
In any case, while preparing this post I came across an article in The Federalist which also discusses Stark's book. The article is pretty good and you might wish to check it out.