Sunday Afterwords: The Crusades, Myth and History

We hear the word Crusades bandied about in the current discussion about the war on terrorism. Is the West really at war with Islam, if so, is this a new “crusade”? To frame it that way shows that we don’t understand what the Crusades were.  In fact, at this year’s Prayer Breakfast the President made an allusion to the Crusades. Do we have an informed understanding, rooted in the best of scholarship, of the Crusades?

During the summer I read Professor Jonathan Riley Smith’s comprehensive history of the Crusades. This read help me to overcome some of the cultural presuppositions about the Crusades that have distorted the historical truth. These distortions are popularized in the movie the “Kingdom of Heaven” directed by Ridley Scott about a decade ago.

The following article and video lecture by Professor Thomas Madden have also given me a better grasp of an honest historical perspective that does not romanticize history and recognizes cruelty was not on one side but on all.

“From the safe distance of many centuries, it is easy enough to scowl in disgust at the Crusades. Religion, after all, is nothing to fight wars over. But we should be mindful that our medieval ancestors would have been equally disgusted by our infinitely more destructive wars fought in the name of political ideologies. And yet, both the medieval and the modern soldier fight ultimately for their own world and all that makes it up. Both are willing to suffer enormous sacrifice, provided that it is in the service of something they hold dear, something greater than themselves. Whether we admire the Crusaders or not, it is a fact that the world we know today would not exist without their efforts. The ancient faith of Christianity, with its respect for women and antipathy toward slavery, not only survived but flourished. Without the Crusades, it might well have followed Zoroastrianism, another of Islam’s rivals, into extinction.”