The Right Coast

May 04, 2005
Resolving the Crusades (Not)
By Maimon Schwarzschild

The old Catholic Encyclopedia, published in 1914, took a wonderfully rosy view of the crusades: far rosier than even the Catholic Church would today endorse. ("Triumphalist", says Tom, "which we would all now reject.") It seems to me deeply dubious that the crusades, which began in 1095 and essentially ended in failure two centuries later in the 1290s, after horrific anarchy and bloodshed, ought to get any credit for Europe's later defeat of the Ottoman Turkish armies -- starting two centuries later still towards the end of the 1400s and into the 1600s. The Fordham Medieval Sourcebook makes clear that the crusades proper ended in 1291, with the crusaders' failure to hold Jerusalem. In fact, the crusaders' attacks on Greek Orthodox Byzantium had fatally wounded Eastern Christianity and set the stage for Ottoman Turkish expansion at Byzantine expense in succeeding centuries:
The fall of Acre closed an era. No effective Crusade was raised to recapture the Holy Land after Acre's fall, though talk of further Crusades was common enough. By 1291 other ideals had captured the interest and enthusiasm of the monarchs and nobility of Europe and even strenuous papal efforts to raise expeditions to liberate the Holy Land met with little response.

The Latin Kingdom continued to exist, theoretically, on the Island of Cyprus. There the Latin Kings schemed and planned to recapture the mainland, but in vain. Money, men, and the will to do the task were all lacking. One last effort was made by King Peter I in 1365, when be successfully landed in Egypt and sacked Alexandria. Once the city was pillaged, however, the Crusaders returned as speedily as possible to Cyprus to divide their loot. As a Crusade, the episode was utterly futile.

The fourteenth century saw some other so-called Crusades organized, but these enterprises differed in many ways from the eleventh and twelfth century expeditions which are properly called Crusades. The "Crusades" of the fourteenth century aimed not at the recapture of Jerusalem and the Christian shrines of the Holy Land, but rather at checking the advance of the Ottoman Turks into Europe.
History is more than its crimes? No doubt, and I'll resist, sort of, the analogy to many of today's queasy academic defenders of 20th century Communism, who basically rely on that same forensic tag-line. The crusades involved wanton slaughter and plunder of many people: Jews were a prime target -- perhaps in practice the main target -- but there were uncounted numbers of Christian as well as Moslem victims too. Did the crusades bring civilisation to Europe or to the Near East, as the European settlement of North America created the New World as we know it? Or were the crusades one of history's many horrific examples of egg-breaking criminality, from which no omelette (or only poisonous omelettes) resulted? Tom and I are unlikely to settle that question to our mutual satisfaction. But meantime, here is Bernard Lewis on the crusades and Osama's jihad: proving yet again that history lives. Which isn't always a good thing.