Busting the myths about the Crusades


Across the 12th and 13th centuries, the noblemen of Europe conducted a series of ‘Crusades’ in the Holy Land. Over six or seven centuries, this period history was largely neglected, but then the 20th century saw a resurgence of (negative) interest in these Crusades, which generated a number of myths that took over popular opinion.

I don’t know how many times over the years I have found myself flummoxed in evangelistic conversations when the question is thrown at me, “What about the Crusades?”

Now, during my high school Scripture teaching years, I often had a formally parallel question thrown at me: “What about evolution?” After this gauntlet was thrown down with appropriately monotonous frequency, I honed an equally monotonous answer: “Well, what about evolution?” But I never thought of using an analogous answer to my anti-crusading friends: “Well, what about the Crusades?” I now realize that this is exactly the answer I should have given.

In both situations, the questioner believes the weight of the evidence is on their side, and it is therefore not necessary to supply any of it to knock Christianity out of the ring. The high school brain seems to readily absorb the myth that evolution overturns the Bible with no real knowledge of the science or the Scripture. The 20th-century myth-makers have done such a good job that, with no real knowledge of the Crusades or Christianity, your average human being seems to know that one cancels out the other—even if he/she doesn’t quite know how or why.

Now, back then, I may have had some knowledge about Christianity, but I had absolutely no knowledge of the Crusades—apart from what I picked up as a boy, watching a television show about Robin Hood, in which they awaited the return of Richard the Lionheart from his Crusade. In other words: I knew nothing.

Such ignorance made me ask the right question, but of myself: “Okay, what about the Crusades? Is there something here that I should be embarrassed about, or worse, is there something that overturns the Christianity that I stand for?” If only I knew what these things were. But whenever I was confronted by the question, I tapped my watch and remembered I had another appointment.

However, I have now finally reached the item on my ‘To do’ list that says: “Read something on the Crusades”. And I have reached it at exactly the right moment, for Rodney Stark (a favourite author of mine) has recently published God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (HarperCollins, New York, 2009). This is an excellent book, and busts apart the various myths about the Crusades. His own summary of the book is as follows:

The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God’s battalions. (p. 248)

Particularly at this moment in human history when all things Islam are back on the agenda in such a big way, this myth-busting book is well worth the read.

15 thoughts on “Busting the myths about the Crusades

  1. Who provoked the Swedish Crusade to modern day Finland or Danish crusades to modern day Estonia. And if this was not for “land, loot, or converts” then what were those for? Is Stark pushing the Christian agenda again and defending Christians who believed for killing in the name of God?

  2. sounds interesting Peter, although the sense that you are serving in Gods batallion doesn’t solve all the problems, as Marc points out. Does the case for Christianity really rest on our ability to defend the actions of christians throughout the centuries?

  3. A question I rarely hear asked is – why were there Muslims in Jerusalem at all during this period? It was conquered by the Caliphate, of course, in the early 7th century. Muslims are not really in a position to assume the moral high ground there…

  4. Craig, when it comes to Jerusalem, is anyone in a position to assert the moral high ground?

    Peter, does the book actually defend (broadly speaking) the actions of the crusaders, as one reading of the title suggests?

  5. Marc, the book is about the five crusades conducted with the holy land in view. I am not sure what you have in mind by ‘pushing the Christian agenda again’—surely anyone interested in the truth would be on board the attempt to set the record straight if myths have arisen? Or is the search for truth the peculiar domain of ‘the Christian agenda’?

    Mike, I wouldn’t say the case for christianity rests on the ability to defend the action of Christians. There is plenty in this book that I wouldn’t want to defend (neither does Stark)—such as the belief that a crusade atoned for a persons sins. But there are attacks on Christianity that often arise like a heavy smoke screen, that still should be dealt with (if possible), for such things (at least for some people) may get in the way of hearing the true case for Christ.

    I take it that Craig is hinting at one thing Stark points out (and it is obvious), namely, that the Crusades were not unprovoked. Just 80 years after Muhammad’s death in 632, ‘a new Muslim empire had displaced Christians from most of the Middle East, all of North Africa, Cyprus, and most of Spain’ (p.12)—an invasion replete with the slaughters usual for the warfare of the day. Jerusalem surrendered in 636. By 732 a large muslim army was pressing into France.

    But the other factor in the mix was that now Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land began to be harrassed, persecuted and slaughtered, and later Christian sites (such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) were destroyed. This went on for some centuries, and this long back story combined with the latest threat from the Turks, to give rise to Pope Urban’s 1095 call that launched the first Crusade.

    So, Stark’s first point: contrary to what is often said, the crusades were not unprovoked.

  6. Rob, the book does defend the actions of the crusaders, as you put it ‘broadly speaking’—although, as said already, that doesn’t mean every action is decreed to be right.

    Stark is a sociologist. A recent trend in sociology is to provide ‘emic’ (from the inside) descriptions, rather than ‘etic’ (from the outside). The latter was a mistake made by many in the ‘soft sciences’ for a long time. So, an anthropologist would try to understand the practices of a village in way-off-somewhere-else, by reference to European standards of life (to put it extremely). An ‘emic’ description would be to seek to describe the practice as those who are engaged in it would do. This, of course (we can say now with the wisdom of our superior hind sight) is the beginning of real understanding.

    As in sociology, so in history. So, for example, it is anachronistic and misguided to apply the rules of warfare that arose after the Geneva Convention, to battles from an earlier age. The conventions governing the beseiging of cities were quite simple: the beseiger offered the beseigee terms of surrender. If they were accepted, well and good. If they were rejected, when the city eventually fell, the inhabitants were slaughtered, or enslaved, and the city became the plunder of the victor’s troops. Thus when the First Crusade launched the attack on Jerusalem on 13 June 1099, the Egyptian Fatimids who had taken the city from the Turks one year before, did not accept terms of surrender. The next day the crusaders stormed the walls and slaughtered the muslim army and many others in the city as the looting began (pp.155-156). This is one of the major ‘blemishes’ on the Crusader’s record.

    ‘The case for the crusades’ at this point would say, however, that, despite the Geneva convention, 1) this was all according to the conventions of the time; 2) if the Crusaders were to be condemned for this massacre, then the muslims should also be condemned for the many similar and earlier massacres (i.e. it wasn’t one sided); and, perhaps even, 3) if this is deemed a blemish, what do we say of the string of later cases where the crusaders were beseiged, accepted the terms offered by their muslim beseigers and, contrary to the conventions of the day were then slaughtered as they came out of the city?

    ‘Broadly speaking’ is this a defence? Yes, for it is an attempt to understand Crusader motives and actions from the inside and according to the conventions of the time; and yes, because it is an attempt to neutralise unfair and one-sided attacks, and expose a series of recent myths.

  7. Hi Peter

    Thanks for your summary. I agree with prefering emic over etic descriptions within sociology and history. Stark’s aim to expose the myths surrounding the crusades is also commendable and welcome. Also, in our judgment of the crusaders’ actions, it is helpful to be reminded of the context and convention of warfare in their time. I guess they may have been like most Christians of most ages, who followed the conventions of their day rather than the crucified messiah who called his disciples to turn the other cheek and carry the cross. Much easier said than done.

  8. Peter,

    Stark often seems to have a Christian agenda by ignoring some facts and drawing conclusions trained historians don’t necessary see. Surely anyone interested in the truth would also have read real historians who have refuted Stark’s books. Which historians have you read who challenge Stark’s views? Have you read about Crusades from a Muslim point of view?

    Regarding “pushing the Christian agenda again”
    Notice that first you quoted “The Crusades were not unprovoked”
    When I challenged this with valid examples you changed the statement to
    “the five crusades conducted with the holy land…”

    To me the truth statement is that a Christian sociologist who often writes about Christianity thinks that the five crusades conducted with the holy land were not unprovoked. This is where I have to leave it until I have a chance to read it.

    So search for truth is not the peculiar domain of ‘the Christian agenda’ as Christians often overstate their case like what you quoted first. The real truth only comes out after challenging the Christian view.

    See how this Christian meme is going wild in the Internet. Google: “Crusades were not unprovoked” Stark
    You’ll notice how this half truth is now becoming a Christian fact.

  9. Marc Aleso,

    If I have followed your argument correctly, you are suggesting that Peter has done something wrong by speaking of the “Crusades” when it would have been more precise to speak of “the first five Crusades in the Holy Land” and that somehow this is a culpable overstatement of the case.

    This seems a bit strange, I have to say.  “Crusades” is a term with a fair degree of flexibility in medieval studies.  Most of the time when medieval scholars discuss the “Crusades” they use it the way Peter has – as referring to the attempts to reconquer the Holy Land, and especially Jerusalem.  They don’t feel the need to say “The Crusades in the Holy Land every time, even though they are quite aware that Crusades were, over time, initiated in other contexts.

    Most people tend to think of “the Crusades” as meaning “the Crusades in the Holy Land” as its baseline meaning.

    As for refutation of Stark, what Peter has said about his argument (my only information on the book at this point) is so uncontroversial that I am surprised it is making any waves at all.

    Go to almost any general secular academic discussion of the Crusades from the last century and there should be some recognition that the lands were previously Christian and had been conquered by Muslim forces; that the growing phenomena of Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem was experiencing shabby treatment at the hands of Muslims; and that, especially in places like Spain, Muslim forces had come close to conquering significant stretches of Christian Europe. 

    As far as I can see, none of that is in any way controversial or even noteworthy in medieval studies. It’s on a par with saying that the period was characterised by feudalism – it’s just basic knowledge.

    If Stark’s book is making waves by presenting those points in a popular fashion, then that can only indicate that people are quite ignorant of basic details of the period such that even a basic familiarity shatters widely held notions.

  10. Mark Baddeley,

    If you talk to medieval scholars they can tell you there were about 10 major and more than 10 minor Crusades motivated by various reasons. (Read about Crusade of 1101, Alexandrian Crusade, Fourth Crusade and the Crusades around the Baltic Sea)

    You can use the term “the Crusades” as “the Crusades in the Holy Land” if it is clear from the context. In the quote above it was not. If most people tend to think of “the Crusades” as meaning “the Crusades in the Holy Land” it does not mean it is right and maybe people need to be educated. If people want to know the real motivation of religiously authorised Crusades this article does not help the situation. People should know this at the time we are involved in a war president Bush repeatedly called a Crusade.

    I pointed out non-provoked Christian crusades yet you seem to advocate that it is ok to propagate the pro-Christian idea that “The Crusades were not unprovoked”. This goes to my point pushing the Christian agenda. Christians are happy to promote slightly misleading info if it supports Christian agenda, but they complain if someone tells misleading info about Christians. What ever happened to attempt to set the record straight with the full truth?

  11. Marc Aleso,

    We agree that there are two misconceptions that exist among people generally.

    1. Most people think of attempts to reconquer the Holy Land from Muslims when they hear the word “Crusades”.
    2. Many people think that the attempts to reconquer the Holy Land from Muslims are so morally indefensible as to fatally damage any Christian claims.

    Peter was only addressing point 2.  And his argument was hardly a justification of those Crusades, merely that they were not entirely unprovoked – you can see from the comments that most Christians hardly considered that justification.  So I don’t see the blanket self-justification that you are claiming here.

    But more fundamentally, most people use the word “Crusades” to refer to attempts to reconquer the Holy Land, and Peter (and Stark) are only addressing that issue if they use the word “Crusades” with the same, limited, focus. 

    Only someone like yourself, aware of the broader possible meaning of the term could conceive that it was a defense of other “Crusades” because only somone like yourself is aware of the broader meaning. 

    As to educating people to understand things better, sure, I am always in favour of that.

    But when someone says, “What about the Crusades?”  I’m not sure that they are inviting you to educate them on the existence of 20+ Crusades.  They are saying “The attempts to reconquer the Holy Land were inhuman unprovoked aggression against peaceful Muslims and so disprove Christianity” or the like.  In that context, Stark (and Peter) are making a limited, but valid response.

    If you want to launch a crusade for the fuller education of the public on the Crusades as well, then you are free to do so, and as someone who has lectured on Medieval History I would consider it a noble work.

  12. Sorry don’t know what happened to the previous post.

    Rob Taggart makes an excellent point in his last post.

    Peter Bolt says

    ‘The case for the crusades’ at this point would say, however, that, despite the Geneva convention, 1) this was all according to the conventions of the time; 2) if the Crusaders were to be condemned for this massacre, then the muslims should also be condemned for the many similar and earlier massacres (i.e. it wasn’t one sided); and, perhaps even, 3) if this is deemed a blemish, what do we say of the string of later cases where the crusaders were beseiged, accepted the terms offered by their muslim beseigers and, contrary to the conventions of the day were then slaughtered as they came out of the city?

    This “justirication” amounts to nothing more than “it was ok by secular standards at the time” and “what we did was ok ‘cos they did worse”.

    You ask

    is there something that overturns the Christianity that I stand for?”

    I’d say YES but it’s your moral reasoning rather than the unChristian activities of the Crusaders that has done it.

    By relativising CHristian morals according to the time and others’ actions you’re undermining any Christian claims of moral discernment based on THE truth of GOd’s word.  If what is “right” is changeable according to time and place then God’s word stops being the ultimate authority.

  13. Four young men, all past ministry apprentices, in today’s language, went with Afgan Border Crusade in the early 1980s to investigate Jesus discipleship ministry ways there. I was one of those men. I was privileged to be tutored by Alan Tippett for a year prior to going, benefited from Wycliffe training and had prior experience in making disciples on campus and with grads. Little did we know what to expect. I set myself the goal of going through primary school civics texts, daily bible reading and study (following Ken Short’s example) on top of daily language learning. This was the early days of non traditional work ie outside compounds and with a discipleship focus. We quickly learnt the need for understanding, love, patience, kindness, the need to rejoice, realism, prayer, discipline and that suffering was as daily aspect of life. What am I saying – cast out the notion of conquest, convert, colonise/control and focus on rejoicing and worshiping our Lord and growing a servant heart. Let people see you as Jesus followers, be involved in their lives, live at their level, listen.  Within two years our visas were cancelled, I was sick and we returned. A lost cause. No way!!! To undo the legacy of the Crusades, and there are modern day parallels, involves rethinking deeply – this remains a current need. A substantial biblical training (theo college) and teaming up with like minded people are essentials. We were weak on these fronts. However, we all did have a disciplemaking passion. … My two cents.  Yes, I returned did a triple major in cultural anthropology and now in retirement I am at theo college- full time! Kill the notion of retirement as a western world, twentieth century invention … WE have a job to do!!  Go for it Peter Bolt an excellent initiative. This should be a standing task force!

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