The historical mythology of the Crusades has fueled the imagination of people in a way quite unlike any other event in history. It has spawned innumerable books, movies, and videogames. Legends have formed around everything from secret organizations like the Templars to monarchs such as Richard the Lionheart. These legends and mythologies have penetrated their way into the scholarship view of the history of the Crusades. The majority of medieval scholars have presented the causation of the crusades “as a series of holy wars against Islam led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics.” It is this view which has propagated itself into the mainstream scholarship. Commenting on the error of this view, Lewis states, “We are now expected to believe that the Crusades were an unwarranted act of aggression against a peaceful Muslim world. Hardly.”
If Lewis is correct in his assertion that the Crusades were warranted, two very important questions arise: What was the catalyst which prompted the Crusades? Once begun, were the Crusades consistent with a Christian worldview? It is the goal of this paper to attempt to answer these important questions.
The Catalyst of the Crusades
The idea of a Holy War is a relative late-comer in Christian thought. Indeed, it wasn’t until Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in A.D. 312 that “the religion came into direct contact with statecraft and warfare.” The Christian Church up until Constantine was mostly concerned with self-preservation. They were occupied with religious persecution from the State; while attempting to hold off various heresies from within. Once, however, the Empire accepted the religion, Christian governmental leaders found themselves in a position of dealing with the political landscape of peace and war. Their religion was not equipped to deal with such issues since there had been no necessity to address them. St. Augustine attempted to address the problem by outlining the conditions in which a “just” war could be waged by a Christian ruler. He, however, denounced the use of military action to exterminate pagans, to induce conversion, or eradicate heresies.
Due in large part to the actions of the Bishops of Rome, Christianity did not suffer a decline with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Many of the Germanic tribes, which carved up the western half of the former political power, were themselves Christian. This allowed Christianity to be the dominant religion for most of Europe until the advent of Islam by the Arab merchant, Mohammad. It is with this new monotheistic religion that the story of the Crusades begin.
The rise of Islam is essential to the historiography of the Crusades. According Islamic tradition, the Arabian Peninsula’s pre-Islamic history was a period of great ignorance. During this time, the monotheistic Abrahamic God was perverted by polytheists. It was during this time of ignorance that Muhammad began to receive his revelations from Allah. However, the Qur’an, the Islamic Holy Text which serves as the record of Muhammad’s revelation, seems to identify Christians as an exception to the ignorance, stating:
“And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: Lo! We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud. When they listen to that which hath been revealed unto the messengers, thou seest their eyes overflow with tears because of their recognition of the Truth. They say: Our Lord, we believe. Inscribe us as among the witnesses.
How should we not believe in Allah and that which hath come unto us of the Truth. And (how should we not) hope that our Lord will bring us in along with righteous folk?
Allah hath rewarded them for that their saying – Gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide forever. That is the reward of the good.” (Qur’an 5:82-85).
In the 622 of the Common Era, after preaching in the trade city of Mecca, Muhammad moved to Medina, where he became ruler. This was a pivotal moment in the rise of Islam. Unlike the Christian Church which was attempting to annex secular power from the State; Medina was a theocracy at its core. “Commerce, justice, diplomacy and war were built into the bedrock of religion.”
Since Medina was essentially a theocracy, Muhammed was religiously justified in making war which he inevitably did. He began with the smaller Arab towns before eventually attacking Mecca itself. These wars were called “struggle” (jihad). Soldiers who perished as a result of a jihad were considered martyrs, who immediately rose to a sensual paradise. Yet not every war was considered to be a jihad. The term only applied to war against unbelievers. According to the original view of Islam, a jihad could not be waged against Christians or Jews as they worshiped the one true God, albeit incorrectly. As Madden points out:
Jews and Christians from the Muslim point of view, worshipped the true God, failing only to accept the prophecy of Muhammed. For that reason they were misguided, but not pagans. They were the “People of the Book” who should remain free to retain their religious practices in the lands conquered by Islam.
Still, this freedom was not unrestricted. Should a Christian or Jew attempt to hinder the spread of Islam, then they could be subject to a jihad. It is within this restriction, the two modes of thought concerning the expansion of Islam begins to take form. The “Abode of Islam” referred to the rule of Islamic law in the already occupied territories. The “Abode of War” referred to outside lands in which unbelievers, Christians and Jews included, were targeted for a jihad. In this way, Muhammad envisioned the increase of the “Abode of Islam” as the “Abode of War” shrank in proportion.
The death of Muhammed in 632 brought with it a series of caliphs (successors) who took to the spread of Islam with fervor. By the seventh century, Persia, Syria, and Egypt were under Arab Muslim control. This rapid expansion inevitably resulted in the fracturing of the faith. The most significant of these divisions was the rift between the Sunni and Shia.
The split between two groups stemmed over who should govern the Muslim world in the wake of Muhammad’s death, as well as what or who held the authority for the basis of conduct. The Sunni claimed the “Qur’an, supplemented by the good example of the Prophet was (and is) the guiding principle of conduct.” They considered Abbasid Dynasty as the rightful caliphs and the true leaders of the Muslim community. The Shi’ites, on the other hand, viewed the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad, `Ali, as the true first caliph. They believed the imams (`Ali’s successors) to be the infallible and God guided leaders. Commenting on the split, Jaspert notes:
The division between the mutually exclusive Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam was of much greater importance within the Islamic world than conflict against Christians. Not only did the two branches refute each other in the pages of Muslim historians (who sometimes engaged in polemics against Muslims in the other camp); they also affected the conduct of Muslims in face of the threat of Christianity.
Despite the rapid of advance of Islam, Christians did not initially take to the idea of a Holy War in response to Muslim aggression. Madden explains:
Christians were too fragmented into opposing sects to organize around such a fundamentally central doctrine. For minority Christian sects in Syria and Egypt, the arrival of Muslims was actually good news. The new Arab leaders allowed them a freedom of worship that the emperor in Constantinople did not. Despite their close proximity to Islamic kingdoms, Byzantine Christians, it appears, never developed a religious rationale for waging or condoning holy war.
While Islamic tolerance and fragmented Christianity partially offer a rationale for the slow development of holy wars within Christian thought; contradictory theology completes the picture. When Constantine converted to Christianity, Christians now found themselves occupying high positions within the State. These positions often involved matters of war which brought them at odds with the so called “charity passages.” As Tyerman expounds:
The Beatitudes had to be reconciled with human civilization, specifically the Graeco-Roman world, or, to put it crudely, ways found around the Sermon on the Mount. Being extravagantly well versed in the highest traditions of classical learning, the Church Fathers did this rather well… The experience of the church over the centuries provided its own corpus of law, tradition, history, legend and saints that reflected neither the idealism nor experience of the first century AD.
Church teaching and exegesis reflected this new reality. The publicans who questioned John the Baptist were said to be soldiers advised to remain in the army and collect their rightful wage. (Luke 3:12-14) The concepts of forgiveness and pacifism were held only to individuals and not to the Church Body or State as an entity. This was reinforced by Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of the scriptures, which became the standard scripture in the West. Every time the word enemy appeared in the New Testament, Jerome used the personal Latin word inimicus. Not once in the Vulgate New Testament is the word hostis, Latin for public enemy, used.
As the Christian Church developed its theological justification for war, Muslim conquerors continued their jihad expansion. It would be Western Europe who would finally take hold of the idea of a Holy War. By the middle of the seventh century, the Muslims had taken control over all of Christian North Africa, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, and occupied Spain. In 732, Charles Martel, leader of the Franks, finally slowed down the Islamic expansion with his victory at the Battle of Tours. The defeated Muslims were forced to retreat back to Spain. The battle spawned a Christian Western European unified sentiment of retaliation as most viewed Spain as a part of Christendom. Madden notes, “From their perspective, these lands were consecrated to Christ. It was not right that infidels should dwell there, let alone rule. Was it not self-evident that a Christian who fought to reclaim lands conquered by unbelievers was himself fighting for Christ?” Eventually this feeling of retaliation would result in a series of military campaigns known as Reconquista (Reconquest) as way of dealing with the Muslim occupation of Spain.
The Reconquista were not “holy wars,” per say. They lacked the spiritual benefits, such as plenary indulgence, which typically accompany a holy war. Nevertheless, it was the next step towards such an action, being as it were, the training and proving grounds of the moral and theological justifications of the crusading movement. The church encouraged and condoned the campaigns as an Augustinian “just war.” Being such, Christians soldiers felt secure that their actions were the appropriate response to Muslim aggression.
With the finding of the bones of St. James the Greater at Santiago de Compestello in the ninth century, Soldiers began to use the shrine of St James as rally point. Encouraged by the idea that they were liberating lands that the Apostle had won for Christ, they would continue on their military campaigns. For the first time, a Christian military campaign would be associated with a holy pilgrimage.
In the eleventh century, as the Reconquista campaigns continued to gradually take back Spain from Arab Muslims, a new Islamic threat arose to the Byzantine Empire, the Seljuk Turks. The Seljuk Turks were not Arab, but still they were Muslims. Early in the century, their conquests allowed them to occupy Armenia, Syria and Palestine. Upon entering Jerusalem, the Turks began to kill Christian clergy, ransack churches and capture pilgrims. This did not last long as Jerusalem’s main profitability has always been tied to its religious heritage and the economy that developed around pilgrimages. However, since the Turks were mostly made up by antagonistic sects with a multiplicity of rulers, the near east region was still highly unstable even after the persecutions ended.
By late eleven century, the Byzantine Empire, the last vestige of the old Roman Empire, was in trouble. The Turkish Muslims controlled everything up to the Bosporus. The Normans had taken control of the last Byzantine stronghold in Italy. All the while, the Penchenegs were threatening from the North. Emperor Romanus IV gathered his forces to defend Asia Minor from a Turkish assault in 1071. The Turks decimated Romanus’ forces and captured the Emperor, himself. It seemed the long standing Roman Empire would finally meet its end.
However, in 1081 Alexius I Comnenus took the throne. He was able to raise a powerful mercenary army to successfully hold outside invaders at bay. His military successes helped raise the morale of his citizens who had become hopeless in the wake of what seemed to be inevitable defeat. Alexius, it seems, seriously considered taking the bold and unpopular step of turning to the West as potential allies. Madden notes the political risk such an action would involve:
Byzantines viewed all of Western Europe as Roman territory temporarily occupied by barbarians. Although westerners were Christian, from the Byzantine perspective they were misguided by various liturgical errors and heretical beliefs, chief of which was their insistence on the central authority of the pope over all Christians.
Yet, Alexius needed troops. Western Europe had essentially become a region of armed forces as a result of constant Viking, Hungarian, and Islamic invasions of the ninth and tenth century. Politically, Western Europe had no strong central government. Kings had little or no control over their vassals. Land Barons had large number of trained infantry which they used to attack each other. Even the Papacy had little success in curbing the violence which arose from a proliferation of warriors without a clear directive.
When Pope Gregory VII took over his Pontificate in 1073, he was well aware of both the western European situation and the plight of Byzantine Empire. The next year, Gregory began to make plans to send a military force east with him at its head. This fit in nicely with his Papal reform movement as Gregory subscribed to the ideologies of reformers like Humbert of Candida. These reformers believed that in order to remove clerical abuses from the Church, the Church must first remove itself from the control of laity. A military campaign led by the Bishop of Rome, himself, would go a long way to achieve such an end.
In order to do so, however, Gregory would have needed to leave someone in charge to run and protect the Church. At first, he intended for King Henry IV of Germany to fulfill such a role and the King was all too happy to oblige. Unfortunately, Gregory’s military campaign of mercy and charity towards the estranged Christian brethren to the East never came to fruition. He and King Henry had a falling out over Gregory’s decree against investiture of laity which sparked the Investiture Controversy. The Byzantine problem was moved to the back burner for the time being.
On February 22, 1076 Gregory, through a prayer to St. Peter, successfully excommunicated and deposed the King of Germany and the Bishops who followed him This gave the Papacy a huge upper hand in the controversy. Although on several occasions kings and rulers had been able to depose Popes and Bishops; for the first time in history a Pope was able to depose a king. Soon other European leaders were eager to fall in line with Papal agendas, fearing the same results as King Henry. By the end of the eleventh century, the Papacy had enough authority, both theologically and politically, to answer a request for aid from Alexius I Comnenus. At the Council of Clermont, in 1095, Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade.
It seems Lewis may have been right in suggesting that the Crusades were warranted. Certainly, Muslim jihad aggression was the principal catalyst for the development of the holy war ideology within the Christian Church. Self-preservation presents quite an argument for the case of theocratic military campaigns. Still, the question of consistency within the Christian worldview looms. Is military action an appropriate response for the Church in the face of outside aggression? The rest of this paper will be devoted in an attempt to demonstrate the inconsistency of such an ideology in context of a Christian worldview.
Perhaps the most obvious way Church leaders, both prior to and at the time of the Crusades, showed an inconsistent Christian worldview was in their interpretation and exegesis of scripture. When the Apostle Paul encouraged Timothy, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) He was reminding his disciple that a Christian’s ideology should fit into the context of Scripture. It seems plain that early Church teaching does not achieve this. Indeed not, the ecclesiastical leadership of the time seems to attempt fitting Scripture into the context of human ideology. They could not reconcile their desire for retaliation with Scripture. So instead of abandoning the desire, the Church reconciled Scripture to suit their desire.
One of the biggest obstacles Church scholars faced were the passages concerning the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9). Augustine understood this to mean that if a military campaign’s purpose was to bring about peace; then the war, itself, may be just. Yet Paul would write to the Church at Rome, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Romans 12:19).
To circumvent this apparent contradiction between ideology and Biblical teaching, the Church leaders taught the charitable doctrines of the Scriptures only applied to personal conduct. The doctrines of pacifism, tolerance and mercy did not apply to the State or the Church body as an entity. It was reserved for individual members in their daily lives. Jesus, however, seems to thwart this interpretation in his exchange with Pontus Pilate:
Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, and called Jesus, and said unto him, Art thou the King of the Jews? Jesus answered him, Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me? Pilate answered, Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done? Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. (John 18:33-36)
Pilate did not fear some personal retaliation from Jesus. No, he feared a violent uprising from Jesus’s followers as whole. Pilate was afraid of the entity, not some personal vendetta. Jesus calms Pilate’s fears by telling him that his kingdom was not of this world, and as such his followers would not avenge him through an insurrection of violence. Is it not rational that Jesus’ followers would attempt retaliation? Is it not also self-evident that a person avenging the death of Jesus would be fighting for Christ? How much more was Christ’s life worth than land’s claimed in his name centuries later? Did not Christ tell Peter to put his sword away? (Matthew 26:52).
Although, the Crusades were the result of Islamic aggression, it cannot be argued that military retaliation is appropriate or even justifiable response for the Christian. To do so is a gross imposition on Biblical teaching. Perhaps Runciman was correct when he judged, “the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.” However, to suggest, as Lewis does, the Crusades were warranted; as a Christian, I can only say, hardly!
Jaspert, Nikolas. Crusades. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 2006.
Lewis, Bernard. “The 2007 Iriving Kristol Lecture.” Washington, D.C., 2007.
Madden, Thomas F. Critical Issues in World and International History : Concise History of the Crusades. Blue Ridge Summit, PA, USA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013.
Madden, Thomas F. “The Real History of the Crusades.” Christianity TodayMay 2005.
Robinson, Chase F. and Chase F.. Robinson. The Rise of Islam, 600–705
the New Cambridge History of Islam: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades. Vol. iii. 3 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Reprint, Reissue.
Tyerman, Christopher. God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. London: Penguin Books, 2007.
 Thomas F. Madden, “The Real History of the Crusades,” Christianity TodayMay 2005.
 Bernard Lewis, “The 2007 Iriving Kristol Lecture,” (Washington, D.C.: 2007).
 Thomas F. Madden, “Critical Issues in World and International History : Concise History of the Crusades,” (Blue Ridge Summit, PA, USA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013).
 Chase F. Robinson and Chase F.. Robinson, The Rise of Islam, 600–705
the New Cambridge History of Islam (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 177.
 Ibid., 3.
 Nikolas Jaspert, Crusades (Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 2006), 6.
 Christopher Tyerman, “God’s War: A New History of the Crusades,” (London: Penguin Books, 2007).
 All scripture is King James Version unless otherwise noted.
 Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, 3 vols., vol. iii (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987; reprint, Reissue), 480.