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4 Myths About the Crusades

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Msgr. Charles Pope - published on 02/18/15

In light of beheadings, we should not be so quick to condemn Christians of the Middle Ages

Recent and persistent attacks by radical Muslims, especially the most recent beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians, have many asking what can or should be done to end such atrocities. Military actions by numerous countries, including our own, are already underway. Most feel quite justified in these actions and many are calling for more concerted efforts to eliminate ISIS and related zealots who seem to know no pity, no reason, and no limits. I do not write here to opine on the need for or limits on military action. I only point to the “just war” teaching of the Church as a guide for such actions. Obviously, there is a clear and present threat that needs to be repulsed, even with force.

But perhaps, too, given our present experiences, we should not be so quick to condemn the similar outrage and calls for action that came from Christians of the Middle Ages, who also suffered widespread atrocities. The Crusades were a reaction to something very awful and threatening, something that needed to be forcefully repulsed. Many if not most of the great saints from that period called for Crusades, preaching them and supporting them. This includes the likes of St. Bernard, St. Catherine of Sienna, and St. Francis of Assisi.

Seldom are historical events identical to present realities. But our current experiences give us a small taste of what Christians, from the 8th century through the Middle Ages, experienced. Their response need not be seen as sinless or wholly proper. Armed conflict seldom ends without atrocities, a good reason to set it as the very last recourse. Most popular presentations of the Crusades are arguably more influenced by anti-Catholic bigotry than historical fact.

With all this in mind, I’d like to look at the Crusades using excerpts from an article by Paul Crawford, published a few years back at First Principles, entitled, Four Myths About the Crusades. In the excerpts that follow, his text is in bold, black italics, while my comments are in plain red text. The full text of his excellent, though lengthy article can be read by clicking the link above.

For a longer treatment of this subject, please see Steve Weidenkopf’s book  The Glory of the Crusades, recently published at Catholic Answers.

For now, let’s examine Crawford’s article and detail four myths of the Crusades:

MYTH #1: The crusades represented an unprovoked attack by Western Christians on the Muslim world.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and even a cursory chronological review makes that clear. In a.d. 632, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica were all Christian territories. Inside the boundaries of the Roman Empire, which was still fully functional in the eastern Mediterranean, orthodox Christianity was the official, and overwhelmingly majority, religion. Outside those boundaries were other large Christian communities—not necessarily orthodox and Catholic, but still Christian. Most of the Christian population of Persia, for example, was Nestorian. Certainly there were many Christian communities in Arabia.

By a.d. 732, a century later, Christians had lost Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa, Spain, most of Asia Minor, and southern France. Italy and her associated islands were under threat, and the islands would come under Muslim rule in the next century. The Christian communities of Arabia were entirely destroyed in or shortly after 633, when Jews and Christians alike were expelled from the peninsula. Those in Persia were under severe pressure. Two-thirds of the formerly Roman Christian world was now ruled by Muslims.

What had happened? … The answer is the rise of Islam. Every one of the listed regions was taken, within the space of a hundred years, from Christian control by violence, in the course of military campaigns deliberately designed to expand Muslim territory. … Nor did this conclude Islam’s program of conquest. … Charlemagne blocked the Muslim advance in far western Europe in about a.d. 800, but Islamic forces simply shifted their focus … toward Italy and the French coast, attacking the Italian mainland by 837. A confused struggle for control of southern and central Italy continued for the rest of the ninth century and into the tenth. … [A]ttacks on the deep inland were launched. Desperate to protect victimized Christians, popes became involved in the tenth and early eleventh centuries in directing the defense of the territory around them. … The Byzantines took a long time to gain the strength to fight back. By the mid-ninth century, they mounted a counterattack. … Sharp Muslim counterattacks followed …

In 1009, a mentally deranged Muslim ruler destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and mounted major persecutions of Christians and Jews. … Pilgrimages became increasingly difficult and dangerous, and western pilgrims began banding together and carrying weapons to protect themselves as they tried to make their way to Christianity’s holiest sites in Palestine.

Desperate, the Byzantines sent appeals for help westward, directing these appeals primarily at the person they saw as the chief western authority: the pope, who, as we have seen, had already been directing Christian resistance to Muslim attacks. … finally, in 1095, Pope Urban II realized Pope Gregory VII’s desire, in what turned into the First Crusade. 

Far from being unprovoked, then, the crusades actually represent the first great western Christian counterattack against Muslim attacks which had taken place continually from the inception of Islam until the eleventh century, and which continued on thereafter, mostly unabated. Three of Christianity’s five primary episcopal sees (Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria) had been captured in the seventh century; both of the others (Rome and Constantinople) had been attacked in the centuries before the crusades. The latter would be captured in 1453, leaving only one of the five (Rome) in Christian hands by 1500. Rome was again threatened in the sixteenth century. This is not the absence of provocation; rather, it is a deadly and persistent threat, and one which had to be answered by forceful defense if Christendom were to survive.

It is difficult to underestimate the losses suffered by the Church in the waves of Muslim conquest. All of North Africa, once teeming with Christians, was conquered. There were once 500 bishops in North Africa. Today, the Christian Church there exists only in ruins buried beneath the sand and with titular but non-residential bishops. All of Asia Minor, so lovingly evangelized by St. Paul, was lost. Much of Southern Europe was almost lost as well. It is hard to imagine any alternative to decisive military action in order to turn back waves of Muslim attack and conquest.

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