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Myths About Crusade Myths: Were They Defensive Wars?

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According to Scandinavian sociopath Anders Breivik, the number one example of anti-Western propaganda in the school curriculum is "falsified information about the Crusades." He points especially to the widely accepted belief that the crusades were offensive rather than defensive campaigns.

Breivik is not alone in this belief. Last February current Presidential candidate Rick Santorum proclaimed, "The idea that the Crusades and the fight against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical." Like Breivik, Santorum saw this interpretation as a fabrication of the Left, a group defined by its hatred for Christendom and for Western Civilization.

Santorum's words, like his name, inspired laughter with only an occasional serious response, which is a shame. This interpretation about the crusades has been in circulation for a while, particularly on conservative websites, and with the imprimatur of respected academics. The idea that the crusades were acts of aggression, so goes the argument, is the number one myth about the whole crusade movement.

Seen from a global perspective, with the benefit of a millennium of hindsight, the argument has much to recommend it. The crusades began in 1095, proclaimed by Pope Urban II -- though some historians might date their origins a little earlier, starting with the Reconquista in Spain. For the previous four and a half centuries, Muslim armies had enjoyed regular victories over Christian adversaries, expanding from the inhospitable climes of the Arabian Peninsula into Asia, North Africa and Southern Europe. The crusades were thus the first attempt to reverse this centuries-long history of aggression.

But let me apply to this problem the same question that I asked earlier about the crusades as a "clash of civilizations." Did the crusaders view their war in these terms? Was it a defensive war?

The answer is a resounding "no."

The crusaders had one goal in 1096: to capture the Holy Sepulcher, the tomb of Christ, in Jerusalem. Christianity at this time was less about ideas and more about things--places, objects and bones. The highest devotional practice was the pilgrimage, a journey to a holy site, to pray before the body of a saint. The model saint whom all others imitated was Christ, and His tomb was the most sacred one imaginable even though, unlike other saints' shrines, Christ's was empty.

The First Crusade, then, was not about turning back centuries of Muslim expansion. It was about seizing control of sacred landscapes. It was, in modern parlance, "a war of choice" or "an act of aggression." On July 15, 1099, this willfully chosen campaign ended victoriously when the crusaders conquered Jerusalem.

Later crusades, arguably, were defensive, in that they sought to preserve or restore the fruits of this victory. But their defensive goals served to reaffirm that earlier act of aggression.

Many crusaders would add one proviso to this argument. While not a defensive war, it was a war of vengeance. The Christians were out to avenge the sufferings of their Savior, the humiliations He was forced to endure every day as unbelieving pagans soiled the places that He had made sacred through his touch. Indeed, one of the earliest poets to celebrate the crusade began his story imagining Christ on the Cross, comforting "the good thief," telling him that one day, 1000 years in the future, an army of people called the Franks would avenge the cruel deaths that they were suffering.

Jews killed Christ, Christians believed, and Jews were little different from Muslims. That is why some crusade armies in northern France and Germany decided to begin their march in 1096 by killing Christ's enemies at home--which is to say, Jews.

But why did European Christians engage in this war of vengeance in 1095? What, after 450 years, had changed?

Over the course of the 11th century increasing numbers of Latin pilgrims had begun making the long, difficult and dangerous journey to Jerusalem. At the time of the First Crusade, they were returning with terrifying descriptions of their adventures. The Muslim princes in Syria and Palestine had grown increasingly erratic and brutal in their treatment of pilgrims, and the overlords of Jerusalem were charging higher taxes to religious visitors, and badly mistreating those too poor to pay. Dark tales of torture circulated.

Unbeknownst to most European Christians, the causes for this transformed spiritual landscape grew out of real political instabilities in the Muslim world. In 1055 an Asian tribal group, the Seljuk Turks, had established themselves as rulers of Baghdad and thus leaders of the Sunni Muslim world. Their advent to power restarted a policy of military aggression against both Greek Christians and Shi'i Muslims. After a century of relative calm, the Holy Land suddenly became a highly unstable frontier region, as great powers and petty warlords tried to extend their influence and solidify their authority.

The Seljuk expansion proved relentless. In 1071, Turkish armies inflicted a humiliating defeat on Greek Christians at the Battle of Manzikert. In 1073 they wrested Jerusalem from the Shi'i caliphate in Cairo. In 1084 still other Seljuk armies captured the ancient Christian capital of Antioch. There had probably been no more dangerous time to travel to Jerusalem than the last quarter of the eleventh century.

The Greek frontier, by contrast, had largely stabilized in the 1090s. Reports of the Byzantium's demise proved greatly exaggerated. And in the lull that followed, the Empire's always-creative ruler, Alexius I, saw an opportunity to reverse his fortunes. He called for help to Western Europe, even though the Greek and Latin churches had been mightily estranged for decades. From Alexius's perspective, the crusade was a defensive war, an attempt to regain territory recently lost. But from his perspective the crusade was not a crusade at all. It was not a holy war. It was a "just war," a conflict fought for territory against a formidable foe.

We should note one other point about the crusades: they were unnecessary wars. During the 450 years that Muslims ruled Jerusalem, Latin Christians by and large had not yearned to recover that city. They had learned to think according to the ancient Christian dictate that the true Jerusalem was a state of mind, or of soul, not a place on earth. Jerusalem was the peaceful heart that every Christian strove to attain. It could be experienced through a local church, the River of Jordan to be found in a baptismal font. Or else it was the heavenly city to be gained at the end of life's pilgrimage. The idea of a military pilgrimage to an earthly city that--as far as any direct connection to Christ went--had been destroyed in 135 A.D. was foreign.

It was even more foreign to early Christians than it is to modern observers, confident in their own superiority to their savage medieval counterparts, since today, again, Jerusalem and its holy places and the questions of who ought to possess them destabilize world politics. Muslims and Jews engage in a tense standoff over the Temple while various Christian sects brawl in front of the Holy Sepulcher, as if angry that the world refuses to appreciate the stakes involved.

If the crusades have any lesson to teach us it is this: mixing spiritual and physical geographies is dangerous. Mixing myths (in the proper sense) with politics leads only to calamity. And like all of history's truly important lessons, knowing its answer won't do us any good until everyone figures it out.

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