The Right Coast

May 04, 2005
Crusade on
By Tom Smith

I'm obviously not going to defend Crusader thugs murdering Jews or Crusader opportunists crusading for loot. But just as the movement of Europeans across North America was about a lot more than murdering Indians, so the Crusades were about a lot more than killing Jews and other innocents. Here's an excerpt from a somewhat dated, but still useful semi-official account from the old Catholic Encyclopedia (for links go to original; the links in the excerpt below don't work) and some links following to sources for those who want to follow up on their own.

The history of the Crusades is . . . intimately connected with that of the popes and the Church. These Holy Wars were essentially a papal enterprise. The idea of quelling all dissensions among Christians, of uniting them under the same standard and sending them forth against the Mohammedans, was conceived in the eleventh century, that is to say, at a time when there were as yet no organized states in Europe, and when the pope was the only potentate in a position to know and understand the common interests of Christendom. At this time the Turks threatened to invade Europe, and the Byzantine Empire seemed unable to withstand the enemies by whom it was surrounded. Urban II then took advantage of the veneration in which the holy places were held by the Christians of the West and entreated the latter to direct their combined forces against the Mohammedans and, by a bold attack, check their progress. The result of this effort was the establishment of the Christian states in Syria. While the authority of the popes remained undisputed in Europe, they were in a position to furnish these Christian colonies the help they required; but when this authority was shaken by dissensions between the priesthood and the empire, the crusading army lost the unity of command so essential to success. The maritime powers of Italy, whose assistance was indispensable to the Christian armies, thought only of using the Crusades for political and economic ends. Other princes, first the Hohenstaufen and afterwards Charles of Anjou, followed this precedent, the crusade of 1204 being the first open rebellion against the pontifical will. Finally, when, at the close of the Middle Ages, all idea of the Christian monarchy had been definitively cast aside, when state policy was the sole influence that actuated the Powers of Europe, the crusade seemed a respectable but troublesome survival. In the fifteenth century Europe permitted the Turks to seize Constantinople, and princes were far less concerned about their departure for the East than about finding a way out of the fulfilment of their vow as crusaders without losing the good opinion of the public. Thereafter all attempts at a crusade partook of the nature of political schemes.

Notwithstanding their final overthrow, the Crusades hold a very important place in the history of the world. Essentially the work of the popes, these Holy Wars first of all helped to strengthen pontifical authority; they afforded the popes an opportunity to interfere in the wars between Christian princes, while the temporal and spiritual privileges which they conferred upon crusaders virtually made the latter their subjects. At the same time this was the principal reason why so many civil rulers refused to join the Crusades. It must be said that the advantages thus acquired by the popes were for the common safety of Christendom. From the outset the Crusades were defensive wars and checked the advance of the Mohammedans who, for two centuries, concentrated their forces in a struggle against the Christian settlements in Syria; hence Europe is largely indebted to the Crusades for the maintenance of its independence. Besides, the Crusades brought about results of which the popes had never dreamed, and which were perhaps the most, important of all. They re-established traffic between the East and West, which, after having been suspended for several centuries, was then resumed with even greater energy; they were the means of bringing from the depths of their respective provinces and introducing into the most civilized Asiatic countries Western knights, to whom a new world was thus revealed, and who returned to their native land filled with novel ideas; they were instrumental in extending the commerce of the Indies, of which the Italian cities long held the monopoly, and the products of which transformed the material life of the West. Moreover, as early as the end of the twelfth century, the development of general culture in the West was the direct result of these Holy Wars. Finally, it is with the Crusades that we must couple the origin of the geographical explorations made by Marco Polo and Orderic of Pordenone, the Italians who brought to Europe the knowledge of continental Asia and China. At a still later date, it was the spirit of the true crusader that animated Christopher Columbus when he undertook his perilous voyage to the then unknown America, and Vasco de Gama when he set out in quest of India. If, indeed, the Christian civilization of Europe has become universal culture, in the highest sense, the glory redounds, in no small measure, to the Crusades.

This is obviously written in an old-fashioned, triumphalist vein, which we would all now reject. While I am not erudite enough to have an informed opinion, I am, however, at least doubtful that without papal leadership and an offensive defense against the "Mohammedans," there would have been a West or a Europe. World history may well have gone a different way, and we might still be living in a world "lit only by fire." I'm not sure how you judge centuries worth of history, but I'm sure you have to look at more than its crimes.

More sources on the crusades here, and here.