9th Grade: The Crusades and “The Fog of War”

Greetings,

In his famous work, On War, the Prussian Carl von Clausewitz commented,

War is an area of uncertainty; three quarters of the things on which all action in War is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty to a greater or lesser extent. The first thing (needed) here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment.

This truth makes itself felt in many areas, with the Crusades certainly among them.

This week we began to look at the Crusades.  The Crusades would be one of the defining events of medieval civilization and they raise many questions.

Why did they go on the Crusades?

We understand some of the parallels from the Crusades to today, with religiously motivated conflict once again making a return to history.  But every a cursory look at the Crusades repels most modern observers.  Their reasons and motivations seem entirely foreign to us.  When we examine Crusading literature, for example, we cannot help but be struck at the importance they placed not on “holy war” against Moslems, or “breaking Moslem power,” (very general, broad reasons), but  specifically the recovery of Jerusalem, and more specifically still, the recovery of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ may have been buried and raised from the dead.  Many miracles were recorded at the site in the Middle Ages, which we moderns may or may not believe.  But there can be little doubt that nearly all medievals believed God was present in a special way at this church.

Exterior, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Interior

Many may have a hard time relating to this today.  We tend not to think of some places as more special than another.  For early medievals, however, Jerusalem was part of their spiritual inheritance.  Not having access to it might be the equivalent of not being able to have access to the Bible for some Protestants.

One need not read Scripture every day to be a Christian.  But if someone or some power decided that Christians could no longer have access to Scripture, that would be a problem.  If we see Scripture the way medieval Christians viewed Jerusalem, we would see that the Bible is part of God’s gift to the Church.  God need not ‘prove’ His love by giving us this, but He gave us His word as a gift, for our benefit.  It is part of His inheritance for us.  Should we seek to recover our inheritance?  Would we be justified in using violence to do so?

As for the medieval view of Jerusalem, I tried to explain it to student using the idea of experience and inheritance.  Suppose for a moment that there is a special place associated with your childhood and your family.  Take, for example, your grandfather’s house that had a place you enjoyed.  In my case it would be the stream in his backyard.  I had many great times there building forts, shooting bb guns, playing elaborate games of tag. Now suppose that upon his death he left the property to me in his will from now until doomsday. Let’s suppose that circumstances prevent me from staying on the property, and I get word that someone else occupies  the property and dumps toxic waste into the stream.  If I didn’t care, what it would say about how I view my grandfather, or my inheritance?

Of course, even if my analogy accurately describes the west’s view of Jerusalem, it still begs a variety of questions.  In what sense was Jerusalem the ‘inheritance’ of Christians?  Is it only history that makes it special, or are certain places (such as the Holy Sepulchre) really a literal “fount of blessing” for the Christian faithful?  If it were, what would be best way to regain it?  What methods would be justified?  Should they even attempt to do so, or ‘turn the other cheek?’

So why did people go?

  • Some went out of a general sense of holy duty.
  • Some, and perhaps many, went in a sense of a pilgrimage, in response to the call for soldiers to exercise penance (indeed, I think we have understand the idea of penance to understand the Crusades).
  • Some went out of a sense of adventure.
  • Some went out of response to the stories of Moslem persecution of Christians. Historians argue that the stories medieval Christians heard contain some exaggeration, and that may be true.  Exaggeration or not, the stories were believed, and we should keep in mind that some of the stories of Christian persecution were undoubtedly true.
  • Some argue that some went in the hopes of adding land to their existing estates.   I admit this possibility in isolated cases, but find it unlikely for the majority.  If their main concern was to add wealth, they would have stayed home and managed their estates.  The Church, for example, enacted several provisions against molesting the property of crusaders.  Their long absence surely would have opened their property up to danger in their absence.
  • Some may have seen it as a way to break the political and military power of the Moslem empire in half, and perhaps hasten its decline.

While the motives of the Crusaders may have varied, there are a few that I believe do not fit the period.  Some say that the Crusades were motivated by anti-Moslem bigotry.  This may have been true in isolated cases,  but the purpose of the Crusades cannot have been to ‘kill Moslems.’   Plenty of Moslems, for example, resided in Spain and were much closer than Jerusalem.  Also, the Crusaders occasionally made alliances with Moslems on their way to Jerusalem, which they would not have done if their avowed purpose was to kill as many as possible.  Also, while some may have wanted to add to their territory, the Crusade in itself was enormously expensive. Nobles who left paid their own way, as well as their attendants, along with being absent from their estate, which also would have reduced their income.

The Crusades had numerous causes, and sifting out the most important is very difficult.

One indirect cause surely was the rise of Moslem power from 630-750 A.D.  From modest beginnings in Arabia, they quickly grabbed the near entirety of the mid-east, along with North Africa and Spain.

But the Crusades do not begin until the late 11th century, so the growth of Islam cannot be the main proximate cause.  Some suggest that around 1050 AD a new breed of tough warrior Moslems called Seljuks caused great alarm in the west.

Moslems had also taken territory from the Byzantine empire, composed largely of Orthodox Christians.  Their appeal to the west for help opened the door not only to political reconciliation, but also reconciling of eastern and western churches, a tempting prospect.

The rise of the power of the state also contributed.  Before mid 11th century, the state generally was weak vis a vis the hold of Church on society.  With the overall stability of the civilization by 1050 came the rise of more powerful monarchs who could control more and more the lives of the warrior caste. Pope Gregory VII, for example, raised his own army of “holy warriors” to combat the rising power and threat of Henry IV.  Since fighting and violence is not in itself wrong, the Church sought to “Christianize” or refine it in the lives of Europe’s warrior caste.

All this of course, does not answer the question of whether or not the Crusades were a good idea, from either a purely military or Biblical perspective.  Even today the Crusades raise important questions:

  • Can violence be used in the name of Christ to achieve ‘holy’ ends?  If we think in Augustinian terms, can violence be part of the ‘City of God?’  Or, can the ‘City of God’ borrow from the ‘City of Man’ without being tarnished?   Can one kill others for God and His Church?  If so, how does this fit within the Christian ethic of loving our neighbors?  If not, is being a soldier wrong for a Christian?  Nearly the whole history of the Church would say ‘no’ to this question.  If a soldier cannot kill ‘for God,’ then for whom should he kill?  How can we know whether or not one truly fights for God?
  • In what sense should the Crusade be thought of in practical terms, and in what sense should the idea of a ‘leap of faith’ enter the picture?
  • Why did the Crusades not result in the reunion of East and West, as many hoped?  What impact did they have on the future of East/West relations?

All in all, the Crusades raise important and profound questions for us today.  At certain times the Crusades have been romanticized.  Today for some the Crusades are the ultimate example of religious bigotry.  Of course, the Mideast has its own remembrance of the Crusades which we do well to consider.

We will delve more into these questions next week.

Blessings,

Dave

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