The Crusades: the truth behind the myths

The Crusades: the truth behind the myths

Frank Mobbs

According to popular atheist writers, religion is a Very Bad Thing. It causes divisions, cruelty, and wars. Richard Dawkins writes in his best-seller, The God Delusion: 'Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades'.

Note how the Crusades are lumped with terrorist slaughter.

Later Dawkins writes: 'In this book, I have deliberately refrained from detailing the horrors of the Crusades'. Christopher Hitchens in his God is not Great links 'the jihadist assault' with 'the blood-stained spectre of the Crusaders.'

My guess is that these authors reflect popular opinion.

Were the Crusades that bad? First we need to clarify which military operations were Crusades. Today the word 'crusade' is often used to refer to any program undertaken vigorously. Originally it referred to military operations undertaken by Catholic Christians at the command of a pope or with his approval. Men who were signed with the cross (Latin crux), the crucesignatos, were called 'crusaders'.

There were many Crusades - against pagan tribes in Northern Europe, against Jews, Mongols, and heretical Christians, to speak of a few. It is quite difficult to define a Crusade because these wars had varied objectives, occurred in different centuries, and under widely varied circumstances.

However, the most famous are those undertaken to conquer the Holy Land (Palestine) in the period 1095 to 1244, so I shall restrict consideration to these.


For a thousand years (c. 700-c. 1700) Northern Christendom lived under the threat of subjugation by Islam. The great early centres of Christianity - the Holy Land, Byzantium (Greece and Turkey), Syria, North Africa, most of Spain - were all conquered by Muslims. Over time most of the conquered became Muslims. The submerged Christians were dhimmi in Islamic law - tolerated infidels, usually allowed to practise their religion but not to propagate it, constantly reminded of their subservient status.

Christians around the Mediterranean lived for centuries in constant fear of raids and invasions by Muslims who came up the rivers of southern France, captured and enslaved Christians, attacked and occupied the port of Marseilles, sacked Rome, took over Sicily and Sardinia, ruled much of Spain for 600 years, repeatedly attacked the Eastern Byzantine Empire, gradually reducing its area, and finally taking Byzantium (Constantinople).

Northern Christians, although protected by distance, had good reason to fear Islamic invasion. They lacked any assurance that their fate would be different from that of Christians around the Mediterranean.

As I said, this situation lasted 1,000 years. When Islamic naval forces were defeated at Lepanto in 1571, Christians breathed more easily, but the danger remained. The Christian Balkans had been conquered and Vienna was besieged in 1529, narrowly escaping occupation. The Battle of Vienna was fought as late as 1683, when a Muslim army was defeated. Had Vienna been taken all of Western Christendom may have been overrun.

When Christendom expanded, it could not go south, so it moved first to the north (Scandinavia, Lithuania), then east into Russia. Only when Christians could by-pass Muslim areas by ship in the 16th century could they carry the faith to the Americas, southern Africa, and the Far East.

Historians generally count nine Crusades to the Holy Land.

The first is fairly well known, lasting from 1096 to 1102. In 1095, when Pope Urban II summoned this Crusade, he was prompted by an embassy from the Byzantine Emperor for desperately needed assistance to stave off surrender of Byzantium to the Muslims.

The Pope, like many Western Christians, also resented Muslim restrictions placed on pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Here it is necessary to recall the reverence for the sites in the Holy Land of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord, of places hallowed by his miracles (e.g., Cana) and his journeys. Medieval Christians were 'materialists' in their devotion, loving to see and touch the wood of the Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the Shroud of Turin, etc. So they reverenced the places, the ground, on which the Lord had walked.

For centuries they had been allowed to visit the sacred sites - sacred sites. They were deeply offended when Muslims denied them access, much more offended than Australians would be if the Turkish government forbade visits to Gallipoli or the French government to war graves in France. To Christians, this situation was intolerable.

The crusaders took vows to recover the Holy Land, as with the vows of monks and friars. In turn, the Church gave them privileges: protection and indulgences (the remission of punishment due for sins committed). The crusaders viewed their efforts as penitential warfare. To them, this motive was very important.


Crusades were hazardous as crusaders knew they would be away from their family and homes for years and in one Crusade the casualty rate was 35%. Landowners were uncertain as to whether their avaricious neighbours would defy the Church and seize their lands.

Once crusaders left home there could be rare, if any, communication with home. They had to finance their long journey, so many had to mortgage their lands and otherwise borrow money. Food had to be bought or requisitioned as they travelled. So low was productivity at the time that the inhabitants of the areas close to the crusaders' route suffered hunger for years after the crusaders passed through.

Most crusaders had to walk to Jerusalem, they and their horses. From Paris to Jerusalem is 3,300 kilometres. It took three years for what remained of the first crusaders to reach Jerusalem and in those days when humans congregated, disease became rampant. There was another difficulty since en route they had to fight battles with the Turks, some of which they lost.

Sadly, while on their journey some of them turned aside to massacre communities of Jews. Here Dawkins seems to win points as every major crusade saw massacres of Jews.

However, to illiterate crusaders it seemed they might as well kill Christ's 'enemies' when passing near them along with those other enemies in the Holy Land. So with religious motives, Christians killed defenceless Jews.

Of course their motives were not warranted by the religion they professed. There was nothing in the teachings of Jesus or the Church to justify such atrocities. Nor were they warranted by popes at the time, for popes had declared Jews to be protected people. But popes had no control over armies once they left their homelands.

The Muslim rulers in and around the Holy Land were divided, so in 1099 Jerusalem fell to the crusaders, with slaughter of the inhabitants. The victors wept with joy at the traditional site of the Holy Sepulchre. Then most of the surviving crusaders, having fulfilled their vow, returned to their homelands leaving weapons and horses behind, with little profit to themselves.

Muslims divided

The leaders parcelled out lands amongst themselves, occupying today's southern Turkey, eastern parts of Jordan and Syria, and Palestine, imposing the feudal system with which they were familiar, and letting Muslims practise their faith.

Immigrants, not Crusaders, later arrived from Europe to trade and administer lands taken from Muslims while the Muslim inhabitants paid a poll tax, the equivalent of that which the dhimmis had paid to Muslim rulers.

The Muslim world did not take a great deal of notice of the Christian occupiers of the Holy Land because Muslims were divided and antagonistic towards each other - Turks opposed Kurds, Sunni opposed Shia, etc.

The Christian occupation was not seriously threatened until 1144 when Edessa (in today's southern Turkey) fell to Muslims. The next year Pope Eugenius III proclaimed the Second Crusade. This was better organised because it was led by kings. It travelled by land, ending in 1149 with the Christians holding Jerusalem.

The Third Crusade (1189-1192) was also led by kings and travelled by land. Later Crusades involved using ships for transporting crusaders and their stores. Christian leaders came to judge that the best way of weakening Muslim attempts to recover the Holy Land was by conquering Egypt whose leader, Saladin, had recaptured Jerusalem.

With this intention, the Fourth Crusade was launched in 1202 but it was disastrously diverted to attacking the greatest Christian city, Byzantium, thus losing the support of Byzantine Christians and doing nothing to retake the Holy Land. The Latins then divided the Byzantine Empire amongst themselves and ruled these territories until 1261. They tried (in vain) to Latinise Eastern Christians, resulting in permanent hostility to the Catholic Church.

The crusaders would occupy parts of Syria and the Holy Land for 193 years - from 1098 to 1291.

Apart from the occupied territories of the Byzantine Empire, the area conquered by crusaders was small, consisting of a narrow strip of land running for about 700 kilometres south from about southern Turkey to Jerusalem, plus islands in the Mediterranean. Tenure was never secure, though there were truces between Christians and Muslims lasting up to ten years.

For much of the time of occupation the Christians held only a number of castles which dot the lands of Palestine and Syria today. Crusades directed to Egypt and other parts of North Africa were unsuccessful, giving crusaders only a brief occupation of small areas although the maritime city-states of Venice, Genoa and Pisa gained valuable commercial footholds around the Mediterranean.

As a series of military operations, the Crusades had no chance of permanent success. The distances from the homelands to the Holy Land were too great to allow adequate reinforcement and communication. Indeed, one can only be astonished that Christians held parts of a territory surrounded by Muslims for so long.

Adding to the difficulties, the Christians were seriously divided. The Byzantines wanted protection from Turks while the crusaders, on the other hand, were mainly interested in making Jerusalem honoured and accessible to pilgrims. Without the support of the Byzantines, the Crusades were doomed.

There were far too many of them, thus splitting Christian forces. At one time four Crusades were in progress at once: in northern Europe, Spain, France (against Albigenses), and the East. Most of the time more than one Crusade was going on with some blame for this situation attributable to popes who summoned Crusades in order to advance their own political causes.

Little impact

Overall, the Crusades had little impact on the world of Islam. Muslim rulers were too busy fighting on many fronts to take much notice - for example, in Spain and India, and against the Mongols. They fought each other ferociously, even allying with Christians in some campaigns and rarely forming a united front.

This was just as well for the crusaders whose disunity matched that of the Muslims. Today jihadists frequently proclaim that they are going to defeat the 'crusaders', as if current wars were a continuation of the mediaeval Crusades, as if they were events stamped on Muslim memory. In fact a word for the Crusades, 'Harub al-Salitiyya', was not invented until the 19th century Arab nationalist movements.

A word on our friends Dawkins and Hitchens. They have no appreciation of historical context. Violence dominated life in the Middle Ages. Rulers lacked centralised administrations, so their authority often extended no further than their swords. There was no efficient police force and court procedures were primitive. To right perceived injustice people everywhere resorted to violence, with executions, massacres and maiming being common.

Remember that as late as the establishment of British colonies in Australia around the year 1800, over 100 offences carried the death penalty, prisoners could be flogged to death, and slavery was legal. As recently as 2008 the atheist government of China executed 1700 people.

The Crusades were no more bloody than other wars of the period, including wars against neighbours, Muslims, Hindus, African tribes, Australian aborigines - all regarded violence as normal. At the same time, church leaders were wary of engaging in immoral wars and found in the Just War theory justification for summoning Crusades.

Dr Frank Mobbs is a former lecturer in philosophy and theology at various universities and seminaries and is the author of several books and numerous articles on religious themes. Email:

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