The history of the Crusades is more than an academic pursuit nowadays. After 9/11, defeating the “Crusaders” has become rallying cry for Muslim extremists. At the same time, by the Western media it is often depicted as a shameful period of intolerance. Ridley Scott's 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven painted the crusaders as cynical, chauvinistic and greedy. What is the true story? To find out what modern scholarship has to tell us, in 2005 MercatorNet interviewed Thomas Madden, author of several books on the Crusades. We are republishing it in view of its continuing relevance. 

MercatorNet: How successful were the Crusaders in meeting their own goals of protecting the Holy Places and opening up Palestine for pilgrims?

Madden: Initially quite successful. Jerusalem was conquered in 1099 and the surrounding areas were placed under Christian control shortly thereafter. This lasted, however, only so long as the Muslims in the region were fragmented into warring groups. Once the Muslims began to unify under leaders like Nur ed-Din and Saladin they were able to begin to push the Christians out. Numerous Crusades failed to reverse that trend so that by 1291 all of the Holy Land was permanently lost to the Muslims.

MercatorNet: Were the Crusaders exceptionally violent? After scaling the walls of Jerusalem in 1099, the victorious Crusaders “rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins”, according to the contemporary chronicler Raymond d'Aguiliers. It's not the stuff of exemplary Christians, is it?

War is by nature violent. The Crusaders had come to Jerusalem to restore it to Christian control, the Muslims were there to stop that. Someone was going to get hurt. Today we think of war as an exceptionally clean and precise thing in which the deaths of even 30 people is a bloodbath. That is a very recent occurrence. (Look at the death tolls during the battles of World War II.) When the Crusaders stormed Jerusalem many of the Muslim and Jewish defenders were killed in the ensuing melee. Best modern estimates of the death toll are in the neighbourhood of 4000 people. The rest were ransomed or allowed to depart freely. This is on the high side for cities captured by storm in those days, although by no means out of bounds.

The image of wading through blood up to a horse’s bridle reins was obviously not meant to be taken seriously. It was a figure of speech meant to impart that many people were killed. (If today I accuse someone of making a mountain out of molehill, do I really mean what I say?) As for whether the Crusaders’ actions were those of “exemplary Christians,” they believed that they were and so did every other Christian in Europe. From their perspective they were righting a horrible wrong. They were coming to the defence of the defenceless, punishing those who persecuted pilgrims and polluted the holiest site in Christendom, and cleansing Jerusalem. They believed that they were acting out of love and charity for those Christians in the East who had been unjustly conquered by Muslim armies.

It is common today to regard Christianity as a pacifistic faith, but we should be mindful that such an idea is neither historical nor Biblical. After all, Christ did not politely ask the moneychangers to leave the Temple but quite violently drove them out. He also assured his Apostles, “I have come to bring not peace but the sword” (Matt. 10:34).

MercatorNet: In 1204, the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade sacked the Byzantine capital of Constantinople — which is a long way from Jerusalem — and established a Latin kingdom in its stead. It was a blow from which Eastern Christianity never really recovered. Doesn’t this prove that the Crusaders’ motives were financial and political rather than religious?

Madden: Only if one knows nothing about the Fourth Crusade. The Crusaders made the detour to Constantinople because they believed they were performing an act of love and charity for the Byzantine people, restoring to them their rightful emperor (Alexius IV) and giving them the opportunity to depose their evil usurper (Alexius III). For this errand Alexius IV had promised to join the crusade and financially support it on its way to the Holy Land.

In fact, though, the Crusaders were sold a bill of goods. The Byzantine people had no desire to be ruled by a Crusader-backed emperor and even when Alexius IV was placed on the throne he found it impossible to make good on his promises to the Crusaders. At last he was assassinated in a palace coup and the new emperor, Alexius V, refused to fulfil his predecessor’s promises. Having been detoured, detained, and betrayed the Crusaders attacked Constantinople in 1204 and captured it. It is correct to say that Constantinople never recovered from this conquest (at least under Christian rule – it recovered quite nicely under Ottoman control). It is not, though, correct to say that Eastern Christianity was unable to recover. It had no substantive effect on the Orthodox faith.

MercatorNet: The Crusades are often presented as a Christian version of jihad, a Holy War to proselytise with the sword, forcing conversion upon the paynim. The most influential historian of the Crusades, Sir Steven Runciman, has described the Crusades as “a long act of intolerance in the name of God”. How much truth is there in this?

Madden: Jihad and Crusade are very different things. The jihad is a responsibility of all the faithful, the Crusade was not. Jihads could and very often were wars to expand the dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam) at the expense of non-Muslims. Crusades to the East were defensive wars whose object was to restore formerly Christian territories that had been conquered by Muslim armies. Those Christians and Jews conquered by jihad warriors were given the option to submit to Islamic law or die. Everyone else conquered by a jihad had only the option to convert to Islam or die. Crusaders, on the other hand, were forbidden to convert by the sword. Indeed, conversion had absolutely nothing to do with the Crusades to the East. Muslims in the region who were conquered by the Crusaders were allowed to continue freely practicing their faith.

Runciman is certainly correct that the Crusades were acts of intolerance. It is important to remember, though, that the concept that religious toleration is a good thing is only a few centuries old. A medieval Crusader would have insisted that Muslims conquering and capturing Christian people was not something to be tolerated.

MercatorNet: ISIS, al-Qaeda and other Islamists describe the US and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq as “Crusaders”. How well do today’s Muslims know the history of the Crusades?

Madden: Not well at all. In fact, the Crusades were unknown in the Middle East until the late 19th Century when the stories of them were brought by the English and French colonial powers. The truth is that in the grand scope of Muslim history the Crusades were just too small to be noticed. From the Muslim perspective the “Franj” (Europeans) were just one more group in an already chaotic political landscape. After a short time they were defeated and expelled and that was all. Much more important were real enemies like the Mongols.

In the 19th Century, however, colonial propaganda swelled the Crusades into an early effort to bring civilisation to the region. By the 20th Century, when imperialism had been discredited, the Crusades were cited by Arab nationalists and Islamists as the reason for poverty, corruption, and stagnation in the Muslim world. The notion is absurd. Long after the Crusades were finished in the Middle East Muslim powers continued to expand at an extraordinary rate. By the 16th Century the Ottoman Empire dwarfed Europe in size, wealth, power, you name it. Blaming others for your society’s own problems, however, does have a certain appeal.

MercatorNet: Do the Crusades have any contemporary relevance? Can we use them as a template for today’s confrontation of the West with the Islamic world?

Madden: No. The Crusades came from a very mediaeval mindset that came out of a religiously unified Christendom under attack from a powerful outside power. They were also closely bound up in the ideas of pilgrimage, relic veneration, penance, and chivalry. None of these are components in the struggle between the West and radial Islam today.

MercatorNet: What if there had been no Crusades? How different would the world have been?

Madden: In 1526 Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who ruled almost the entire Muslim world, crushed the armies of Hungary at the Battle of Mohács and subsequently captured the whole region. Three years later he brought enormous forces up to Vienna. Had a series of exceptionally heavy rainstorms not kept the Sultan from bringing along his heavy artillery and other forces he would very likely have captured the city and subsequently most of Germany. As every European at the time knew, the last remnant of Christendom was close to extinction. Despite their numerous failures, it is certainly fair to say that the Crusades at least slowed the advance of Islamic armies into the Christian world. Had there been no Crusades it is difficult to see how Europe could have avoided complete conquest by the Ottoman Empire.

Would there have then been an Enlightenment, a Scientific Revolution, or an Industrial Revolution under an Islamic empire? It is interesting to speculate, but we can, of course, never know. It seems certain, though, that without the Crusades, the world that we live in today would be different in almost every respect.

Thomas F. Madden is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University.  As an author and historical consultant he has appeared in such venues as The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, and The History Channel.

Thomas F. Madden is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University. As an author and historical consultant he has appeared in such venues...