Why the Crusades Still Matter

Bloomberg View , February 10, 2015

The Crusades have gone from historical background to current controversy, as conservative critics have jumped on U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent prayer-breakfast remarks comparing the brutality of medieval Crusaders with that of contemporary jihadi militants, including Islamic State.

For those interested in understanding how people get caught up in such murderous causes and how religious passions can play out in battle, the First Crusade, which took place from 1095 to 1099, offers a more interesting case study than either Obama or his critics might suggest.

In his 2011 book, "Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse," Jay Rubenstein, a history professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, tells the story of the First Crusade and the religious passions that infused it. He also recently published a reader, "The First Crusade," which includes an introductory essay and 53 medieval documents, most of them translated into easy-to-read contemporary English. I talked to Rubenstein about what inspired the first Crusaders and what their story might tell us about today’s would-be Muslim holy warriors. This is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Question: You write that, “There was no rational explanation or single event that triggered this sudden desire to possess Jerusalem. Various Muslim factions had held it for over four hundred years.” So how and why did what later became known as the First Crusade get started?

Answer: From a Western perspective, there was a growing interest in the Holy Land. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem had increased throughout the 11th century. There was more of a focused interest on the historical life of Christ, and as a result on historical Jerusalem, than there had been earlier in the Middle Ages.

From the Eastern perspective, starting in the mid-11th century there was an incursion of, as we like to say in the historical game, "barbarians from the East," in this case the Seljuk Turks. Their advent -- their takeover of Baghdad, their embrace of Sunni Islam -- destabilized the region in a way that hadn't happened in about 150 years.

Mixed into this was the emperor of Byzantium, Alexius Comnenus, who clearly felt endangered on all fronts, [including] from the Turks. He decided that the best way to deal with that was to write to the West and to request mercenaries to help him. He framed his request in semi-religious terms, but what he was really after were hardened professional mercenaries.

Meanwhile, in the West, pilgrims were coming back with horror stories of what they'd encountered in Jerusalem. There was a sense that the city of Christ was in danger and was being polluted by these barbarians whom they barely understood. When the request for mercenaries came from the emperor, which was subsequently given a stamp of approval by the pope, it transformed into a massive military movement fought in the name of holy war.

Q: Why did people join the First Crusade?

The most common answer in Crusade scholarship -- and you can tell I'm not going to accept it -- is that the goal was penance and the opportunity to have sins forgiven. That's not quite enough for me, because whenever we’re able to get as close as we can to knowing medieval warriors it looks like they're not nearly as concerned with sin and penance and forgiveness as we would expect them to be. The king of France at the time of the Crusade was actually excommunicated because he was in a bigamist marriage. The pope excommunicated him, and he didn't seem to care.

What I tried to emphasize in my book was that there was a real sense of prophetic mission among a lot of people who answered this call for Crusade. You can’t have a normal war for Jerusalem. That seems to me as true today as it would have been in the 11th century. Jerusalem, from the medieval Christian perspective, was both a city on earth and a city of heaven, and these two places were linked. The idea that the Jerusalem on earth was being dominated by an unbelieving, infidel -- in their terminology “pagan” -- group was unacceptable. The rhetoric that was associated with the people holding Jerusalem is pretty shocking: Christian men are being circumcised in baptismal fonts, and the blood is being collected! They're yanking people's innards out by their belly buttons! This is not normal talk. Hatreds and passions were stirred up. The heart of it, and why it was so successful, was that the call to Jerusalem was felt so strongly.

Q: You write that, “The typical aspects of medieval piety -- a desire to undertake pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the need to perform penance acutely felt among warriors, and a simple longing for adventure ... do not go far enough” in explaining the Crusade movement. You say there “was nothing typical” about it. What’s missing?

A: Warfare on this scale, with this level of brutality, with the end of cleansing the streets of Jerusalem with the bodies of the people you have killed -- that's not typical of the medieval experience. What I've tried to bring to the table is the apocalyptic element of thought: the idea that we are entering into the battle of the Last Days here. We're moving in prophetic times.

One of the difficulties I’ve encountered in communicating with my colleagues is that from the typical intellectual perspective, if you talk about the end of the world it's a frightening thing, and you can't imagine anyone feeling anything other than terror. But from the perspective not just of medieval Christians but even of a lot of the modern evangelical Christians I grew up around, the end of the world is something you look to with hope and excitement -- maybe even more so in the Middle Ages, because the end of the world was going to be a military event, and soldiers were going to be involved in it. You’re recruiting people to fight in the grandest epic of all time. That sort of sense of apocalyptic, history-making, epoch-ending excitement is what's missing from the other explanations.

Q: You write that, “The First Crusade created an ethical revolution.” What do you mean by that?

A: What the Crusade introduced into medieval thought was the notion that war was not just a necessary evil, it was a positive good. Not only did it not count against you, it was actually a moral good to massacre the enemy.

Q: Medieval warfare was brutal, as was medieval life in general. Were the Crusades any different or were they just medieval?

A: This is a point where I have some real disagreement with some of my colleagues. Their argument is the Crusades were just an example of the realities of war. It was understood, for example, that if you laid siege to a city and the city did not surrender, if you subsequently took that city by force, the population and all of the goods in the city were forfeit. My response to this is, I’ve never found an instance of medieval Christians defeating a city of medieval Christians and when they took the city they killed everyone inside. Never happened.

More to the point, most of the Crusaders had never seen cities as big as the ones they were encountering in the Middle East, let alone gone in and killed everyone. This was a completely new experience of warfare for them. Most actual warfare when it occurred in the West in the 11th century was on a very small scale. With the exception of the year 1066, big battles fought in single countries were spaced out by 50 to 100 years. To have massacre after massacre occur like this was unprecedented for Western soldiers, and it was happening on a scale that they had never encountered.

Q: Can the Crusaders’ motivations and behavior offer any insights into the motivations and behavior of today’s Islamist would-be holy warriors?

A: I certainly do think there are parallels to be drawn. It’s clearly an uncomfortable thought for a lot of American Christians, based on the strong reaction to some fairly tepid comments from Obama last week. When you combine religious certainty with military activity it leads to unthinkable extremes. I think it becomes much easier to burn people alive and film it than would have been the case otherwise.

Q: What were the long-term effects of the First Crusade?

A: The most immediate long-term effect was that French states were established in the Middle East. People usually think of the Crusades as failures because they did [ultimately] fail, but in fact there were French-speaking states, Christian Catholic states created in the Middle East that lasted for about 200 years. We tend to forget that the West included the Middle East for this stretch of medieval history. If you live in the Middle East it's more obvious because there are Crusader monuments and medieval-style architectural details everywhere. The entry to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, for example, could be the entry to any ornate 12th-century church in Europe, the styling is so close.

Another impact of it, which I'm beginning to think has been more enduring than is often recognized, is that on the Islamic side, the notion of jihad was dying out [before the Crusade]. Holy war was something that had happened in the past, and there had been this steady state reached in the Middle East. I'm not sure that the Turks saw what they were doing when they were engaging the Byzantines as engaging in jihad. After the First Crusade, within 10 years of it, you get Islamic voices like Ali ibn Tahir al-Sulami, in the last document in my source reader, saying we need to revive jihad. He says: The Franks have been waging jihad against us; now we have to get the jihad going back up again.

It also seems to me that the new model of jihad borrowed from what the Crusaders brought. You get the idea of martyrdom -- the idea that if you died you would go straight to heaven. You get mythical holy figures appearing in battles that Muslims were fighting against Christians. You get a more poisonous relationship between religion and warfare than existed before.

Q: One of the striking aspects of your accounts is how fractious and fragmented the Crusaders were. They come from different places, they're following different people, and they have somewhat different motives. The divisions reminded me of the various jihadi groups vying to be top dog today. Do we remember the Crusades as more unified than they actually were? Do these divisions tell us anything about the situation today among the other would-be holy warriors?

A: Particularly with the First Crusade, we do tend to remember it as a more unified movement than it was. We assume that when the pope preached his voice rang out with greater authority than it did, and that it would have been better remembered and better understood than in fact I think it was. We don’t have any record of what the pope said at Clermont except for one sentence [about penance]. All theother stuff is people making it up later.

A goodly number of Crusaders from the north had actually fought wars against the popes. They're not necessarily on the papal side. A lot of people, particularly from the north were inspired by Peter the Hermit, not by the pope -- a very different message. When the Crusaders marched through Byzantium, there was extreme mistrust between a lot of the armies, particularly the ones that got there first, and the Greeks whom they were allegedly on Crusade in part to defend. There was this sense that [the Byzantines] aren't real Christians, that there's just something wrong about them. There was no leader of the Crusade once it started marching. There was a council of leaders.

That probably parallels a lot of what’s going on with ISIS and al-Qaeda and the way these groups tend to metastasize. It also points out how powerful and uniting the notion of religious warfare can be -- that you can have these different groups suddenly coalescing around this idea and against all odds succeeding. The most mind-boggling aspect of the First Crusade is that it succeeded. There’s no reason that this should have worked, that these armies should have survived and gotten to Jerusalem. They somehow did. They held together. This ethos of holy war, which is a fairly terrifying one, can be powerful and effective at holding groups together.