One of the most common objections raised by critics of Christianity concerns the Crusades. I often have heard statements of how the church massacred thousands of innocent Muslims in the holy land in order to obtain riches and retrieve lands for the purpose of establishing holy shrines. Unfortunately many of these criticisms are based on misinformation about the purpose, nature, and historical events that make up this period of church history. F &C turn to this topic in the 22nd chapter of their book and expose and address the myths that are often assumed to be true concerning the Crusades. They divide the chapter into five common myths.
The first myth concerns the purpose of the crusades. Many think they were “unjustified military campaigns against peaceable, tolerant Muslims.” F&C point out that this is historically inaccurate. Beginning with the first crusade in 1095, they show how each crusade was a response to Muslim aggression. Using the just war language of Augustine, F&C show that the original intent of the crusades was to protect and rescue those Christians in Asia minor (and later Edessa in 1144 and Jerusalem in 1187) from Muslim attacks in those areas. They quote crusade scholar Thomas Madden, who states, “The crusades were in every way a defensive war. They were the West’s belated response to the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world.” This is not to say every action in the crusade was morally justified or that abuses did not occur, but the general purpose was to defend innocent Christians and not to pillage and rape innocent Muslims as is often claimed by critics such as Karen Armstrong.
The second myth also concerns the purpose of the crusades. Some claim that the church’s real purpose was to accumulate great wealth by looting the Muslims. F&C acknowledge there was a financial aspect to the crusades, but argue this was an incidental aspect behind their purpose. The crusades were very costly to the average crusader and they often had to raise four to five times their annual income in order to make the long journey to the Holy land and fight for the church. Therefore some form of financial remuneration was expected as a part of being involved. However, they point out that nobody got rich from the crusades and much more money flowed from the west to the east than the opposite.
The third myth concerns the often held belief that the church was trying to gain converts by force. F&C point out that there is no evidence for this claim and that “the crusades simply did not have a view to force or pressure Muslims to change their faith” (293). The purpose was protecting Christians and shrines from attacks by Muslim aggression. This does not mean that some individuals did not reach out to Muslims, such as Saint Francis, but that was not part of the general purpose.
The fourth myth claims that “Muslims have held the crusades against Christians since the Middle Ages” (293). F&C show that, while this has become a popular view (expressed in such films as Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven), this is actually a recent view that has become most popular in the last few years as Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism has arisen. Cambridge scholar Jonathon Riley-Smith argues that “Muslims had pretty much forgotten about the crusades since they had won.” The crusades were raised by some Muslims around the same time Israel’s nationhood came about. It was not a long-standing grudge that Muslims have been holding for centuries.
The final myth goes to the heart of F&C’s project in this book, the relationship of the Old Testament conquests to the Crusades. Some, such as Roland Bainton, have claimed that the “architects of the Christian crusade . . . drew their warrant from the books of the conquest and of the Maccabean revolt” (295). F&C acknowledge that there are isolated incidents in which one finds those who used the conquest narratives to justify aggressive actions against others, such as some Puritans who came to America. However, they marvel that more of this was not done, especially by the one group that one would think would use such texts to justify violence with others, namely, the Jews. The largest problem with this claim by Bainton and others is that there is simply no evidence to support it. It is merely an assertion. We do not find any of the original supporters of the crusades appealing to the conquest narratives in the book of Joshua as scriptural support for the crusades. In fact the most common scriptural passages appealed to come from the Gospels and the mouth of Jesus. What is appealed to are passages where Jesus claims one needs to take up one’s cross and forsake all to help others. So again, another myth is shown to be false concerning the motivation behind the crusades.
While the popular beliefs concerning the crusades continue to cling to the myths we have seen above, serious scholarship continues to reveal those myths to be false and without warrant. F&C perform a vital service contributing to overcoming the overwhelming mythology promoted by misinformed critics.
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