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, it is
often depicted as a shameful period of intolerance by the Western
media. The recent 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, MercatorNet interviewed Thomas Madden, author of a recent book on the Crusades, The New Concise History of the Crusades. Professor Madden is the chair of the department of history at Saint Louis University.

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

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

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
thirty 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.

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

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?

: 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: Osama bin
Laden and other al-Qaeda spokesmen often describe the US and its allies
in Afghanistan and Iraq as “Crusaders”. How well do today’s Muslims
know the history of the Crusades?

Not well at all. In fact, the Crusades were unknown in the Middle East
until the late nineteenth 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
nineteenth century, however, colonial propaganda swelled the Crusades
into an early effort to bring civilisation to the region. By the
twentieth 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 sixteenth
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?

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?

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.

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.

MercatorNet: Ridley
Scott chose Balian of Ibelin as the central figure in his recent film
Kingdom of Heaven. If you were going to direct a film about the
Crusaders, whom would you choose?

Probably Richard the Lionheart (who makes a cameo at the end of Scott’s
film). The story of the Third Crusade is a good one and would translate
well to the screen.