Rethinking the Crusades


Each crusader made a vow, signified by the wearing of a cloth cross, and he (or she) was rewarded with the grant of an indulgence and certain temporal privileges. While holy war had had a long history, the idea of penitential war was unprecedented in Christian thought. It meant that a crusade was for the crusader only secondarily about service in arms to God or benefiting the Church or Christianity; it was primarily about benefiting himself. He was engaged in an act of self-sanctification.

On July 15, 1999, the nine-hundredth anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem to the crusaders, a party of Christians paraded round the city walls to publicize a personal apology on behalf of their religion to Muslims. They wanted to make a conciliatory gesture, on the one hand, and on the other to express contrition for wars they believe should be included in the category of events Pope John Paul II calls departures from the spirit of Christ and his gospel. To accept blame humbly when one is at fault is always good, of course, but in this case the apologizers were only showing that they did not comprehend the Muslim view of the crusades (which made their conciliatory gesture empty) and did not understand history (which made their act of contrition pointless).

Crusades were war-pilgrimages proclaimed by the Popes on Christ's behalf and waged for the recovery of Christian territory or people, or in their defense. Each crusader made a vow, signified by the wearing of a cloth cross, and he (or she) was rewarded with the grant of an indulgence and certain temporal privileges. A distinguishing feature of crusading was that the cross was enjoined on men and women not as a service, but as a penance, the association of which with war had been made about a decade before the First Crusade. While holy war had had a long history, the idea of penitential war was unprecedented in Christian thought. It meant that a crusade was for the crusader only secondarily about service in arms to God or benefiting the Church or Christianity; it was primarily about benefiting himself. He was engaged in an act of self-sanctification.

Crusading generated two institutional mutations: military orders, the members of which were not crusaders, being permanently as opposed to temporarily engaged in the defense of Christendom and sometimes operating out of theocratic order-states like Prussia, Rhodes, and Malta; and crusade leagues, which were alliances of certain frontline powers, the forces of which were granted crusade privileges.

The movement lasted a very long time, from the preaching of the First Crusade in 1095 to the fall of the last order-state, Hospitaller Malta, to Napoleon in 1798. It manifested itself in many theatres of war: Palestine and the eastern Mediterranean region, of course, but also North Africa, Spain, the Baltic shores, Hungary, the Balkans, and even Western Europe. The Muslims were not the crusaders' only enemies, although they provided the opposition in North Africa and Spain as well as in Palestine and Syria, and, from the later fourteenth century onwards, in the Aegean and the Balkans. Crusaders were also engaged in campaigns against Pagan Wends, Balts and Lithuanians, Shamanist Mongols, Orthodox Russians and Greeks, Cathar and Hussite heretics, and Catholic political opponents of the papacy.

Some crusades, therefore, were "introspective" in that they were launched against fellow Christians. Holy war has the tendency, whatever the religion involved, to turn inwards sooner or later and to be directed against the members of the society that has generated it. The fear grows that any chance of victory may be vitiated by corruption or divisions at home, so that only when society is undefiled and is practicing uniformly true religion can a struggle on its behalf be successful.

From the Fourth Lateran Council in the early thirteenth century to the Council of Trent in the middle of the sixteenth, every general council of the Church was officially summoned at least partly on the grounds that no crusade could be really successful without a reform of the Church and of Christendom. In the middle of the twelfth century Peter the Venerable, the influential abbot of Cluny, was prepared to state that violence against fellow religionists could be even more justifiable than the use of force against infidels. In 1208, calling for a crusade against the heretical Cathars with imagery of uncleanness and disease, Pope Innocent III summoned "knights of Christ . . . to wipe out the treachery of heresy and its followers by attacking the heretics with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, that much more confidently than you would attack the Muslims because they are worse than them." Introspective crusades were often seen as preliminary to war against Islam — men who had taken the cross for the East not infrequently found themselves pressured into commuting their vows in favor of internal police actions.

It has often been said that crusaders tended to behave particularly badly once they were in the field. That they could be undisciplined and capable of acts of great cruelty cannot be denied. The question, however, is whether the form of war in which they were engaged was a peculiarly horrible one. Recent work on the sack of Jerusalem in July 1099, one of the most notorious incidents and the one commemorated by those repentant modern Christians, is leading some historians to look at the evidence again. We know it to be a myth that the crusaders targeted the Jewish community in Jerusalem. We also know that the figure for the Muslim dead, which used to range from ten to seventy thousand on the basis of accounts written long after the event, ought to be revised downward. A contemporary Muslim source has been discovered that puts the number at three thousand. Three thousand men and women is still a lot of people, of course, but it is low enough to make one wonder why the Western eyewitnesses, who gloried in generalized descriptions of slaughter, felt the need to portray a bloodbath.

If, on the other hand, the behavior of the crusaders in the East cannot be considered to have been quantitatively worse than that of those fighting in any ideological war, the behavior of the crusaders in Europe could sometimes be abominable, even by the standards of the time. Before heading off to the Jerusalem crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, some Europeans "prepared themselves" through violent outbreaks of anti-Judaism in France, Germany, and England. During the crusades launched against fellow Christians or heretics, the most unpleasant examples of loss of discipline and control took place (the sacks of Constantinople in 1204 and of Béziers in 1209 spring to mind). If we are going to express contrition for the behavior of the crusaders, it is not so much to the Muslims that we should apologize, but to the Jews and to our fellow Christians.

But should we be apologizing at all? No crusade was actually proclaimed against the Jews, although crusade preaching unleashed feelings that the Church could not control. As far as crusading itself is concerned, most Muslims do not view the crusades, in which they anyway believe they were victorious, in isolation. Islam has been spasmodically in conflict with Christianity since the Muslim conquests of the seventh century, long before the First Crusade, and the crusading movement was a succession of episodes in a continuum of hostility between the two religions. Muslims do not seem to have considered until relatively recently that the crusades stood out in this history; by 1500, indeed, they would have been justified in believing that that particular sequence of wars was ending in their favor. They might have lost Spain, but the Ottoman conquests in Europe had far exceeded anything the crusaders had gained in the East. In the late nineteenth century, however, they began to regard the West's monopoly of commerce and colonialism as a change of tactics, in which everything the crusaders had lost to them was being more than regained. It follows that apologizing to them now can never, as far as they are concerned, get to the root of the problem, because the crusades are merely symptomatic of a much longer-term competitiveness. It is rather like a marksman aiming at an opponent and, while he fires his rifle, expressing regrets for his ancestor's use of a bow and arrow.

But for many of the Christian penitents, what the Muslims think is of secondary importance; it is the Church's subjective act of repentance for past sin that matters. While this kind of self-accusation may make them feel good about themselves, it is possible that, in diverting attention from the real issues, they are doing more harm than good. How useful is it to condemn wars that were supported by great saints like Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, John of Capistrano, even possibly Francis of Assisi, however abhorrent the ethical principles on which they were based appear to be to us? Ought we not rather challenge the widespread sentimental and unhistorical assumptions that on the one hand Christianity is an unambiguously pacific religion and on the other that Christian justifications of force have been consistent?

The consensus among Christians on the use of violence has changed radically since the crusades were fought. The just war theory prevailing for most of the last two centuries — that violence is an evil which can in certain situations be condoned as the lesser of evils — is relatively young. Although it has inherited some elements (the criteria of legitimate authority, just cause, right intention) from the older war theory that first evolved around a.d. 400, it has rejected two premises that underpinned all medieval just wars, including crusades: first, that violence could be employed on behalf of Christ's intentions for mankind and could even be directly authorized by him; and second, that it was a morally neutral force which drew whatever ethical coloring it had from the intentions of the perpetrators. Only in the sixteenth century did the nearly universal conviction that the use of violence depended on Christ's direct or indirect authority begin to be undermined. For the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria and his followers, particularly Suarez and Ayala, violence could be justified only in terms of the needs of the "common good," defined in relation to accepted earthly laws.

Just war arguments thus moved from the field of moral theology to that of law, a step taken within decades by Gentili and Grotius. Christ was withdrawing from the fray, at least as far as Enlightenment thinkers were concerned — the Encyclopédistes referred to the crusades as ces guerres horribles — but although they agreed that the use of force nearly always had evil consequences because of the suffering that accompanied it, they still regarded violence itself as being morally neutral. No one had yet taken the second step necessary for the emergence of "modern" just war theory, the conviction borrowed from pacifism that force is intrinsically evil — though conceding that it can nevertheless be condoned as a lesser evil. I do not know exactly when this change took place, but I suspect it was an achievement of the peace movement that swept Europe and America after the Napoleonic Wars and split into two wings, pacifist and moderate, in the 1830s.

From the fourth century, and especially from the eleventh to the nineteenth century, therefore, Christians considered violence in a quite different light than we do today. Our just war theory has become so embedded in our thinking that we forget that it represents a relatively short-lived departure from a much longer-lasting and more positive tradition. Time will tell whether that older tradition represents the norm, but a realization of this may come sooner rather than later, because there are several straws in the wind. The founding of the League of Nations and then the United Nations and the judgments at the Nuremberg trials encouraged the revival of concepts of natural law, manifesting themselves in the notion of crimes against humanity and an insistence on judgment by international tribunals. This seems to have set in motion a process that has now led to the waging of a war justified by its "humanitarian" aims.

This development, one should note, reverses the achievement of the sixteenth-century thinkers, by subordinating international law to natural law and by reintroducing ethical judgments to just war theory. It is beginning to look, moreover, as though the restoration of Christ to the position of an authorizer of violence, which was a feature of the militant Christian liberation theology in the 1960s and early 1970s, was not a flash in the pan but was part of this process of change.

That nineteenth-century just war theory may be giving way less than two centuries after it became the consensus indicates how unsatisfactory, philosophically and practically, it has proved itself to be. Within decades the problems raised by it were so intractable that lawyers began to concentrate on getting international agreement on rules of war that might ameliorate the suffering that accompanied conflict rather than on basic principles. Its fallibility was again revealed during the Nuremberg trials, in the more recent debates on proportionality with respect to nuclear deterrence, and in the extraordinarily confused justifications given for the Gulf War by some leading Christians.

I am fairly sure that those who are now demanding an apology for the crusades are themselves, without knowing it or understanding how rapidly the ground is shifting beneath them, sharing in a new consensus which is au fond not very far from the war theology they are condemning. A stance that justifies a "humanitarian" war on moral grounds has placed itself at least in the same field as that once occupied by crusade theorists. The language that demands that our ancestors be posthumously anathematized is not too distant from that of the men who wanted the corpse of Pope Boniface VIII to be exhumed and burnt. We may be entering a period of conceptual uncertainty about the most difficult of all society's dilemmas — when or when not to use force — and we need not emotion, but cool heads and an objective analysis of the past.


Jonathan Riley Smith "Rethinking the Crusades." First Things 101 (March 2000): 20-23.

This article is reprinted with permission from First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010. To subscribe to First Things call 1-800-783-4903.


Jonathan Riley-Smith is the Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge University and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and the author or editor of twelve books on the crusades and the Latin East, including The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades (2001) The Oxford History of the Crusades (2000) and The Crusades: A Short History (1987).