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The Crusades: Urban Legends and Truth


Although many college students today are ignorant concerning the Holocaust from only a generation ago, many seem to think they know enough about the Crusades to use them as an argument for the evil of religion. Like the tired refrain that religion is “anti-science” even though only one example is usually offered (and it is mistaken), the Crusades are often “the” example listed for the equally wearisome complaint that religion causes more wars than any other factor (a laughable falsehood).

The Crusades are often pictured as a series of bloodthirsty religious wars comparable to modern-day jihad terrorism. However, while there certainly were misdeeds performed during the Crusades – and these should be remembered and judged accordingly – the larger issue is whether or not the Church in general – or even the Crusades in particular – were at fault for such acts. Hitler and his Nazi state can be properly blamed for the atrocities of the Holocaust, for these vile acts flowed directly from his teachings and commands. But were the Crusades equally to blame for the evil performed while they were enacted, or are they, like other Christian Urban Legends, misunderstood and misrepresented?

Bad Press and Modern Myths

Thomas F. Madden, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University, says that,

“During the Middle Ages you could not find a Christian in Europe who did not believe that the Crusades were an act of highest good. Even the Muslims respected the ideals of the Crusades and the piety of the men who fought them. But that all changed with the Protestant Reformation. For Martin Luther . . . argued that to fight the Muslims was to fight Christ himself, for it was he who had sent the Turks to punish Christendom for its faithlessness. . . . It was in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that the current view of the Crusades was born.”


Even after the Reformation / Enlightenment period, the Crusades were not looked upon in a negative light. Even Muslims showed little interest in the Crusades before it became politically expedient after “the West” declared Israel a nation once again. Only in the last couple generations have the Crusades became the “whipping wars” in anti-religion propaganda.

Crusade History

“The Crusades” generally refers to the set of seven distinct campaigns over a 150 year period (A.D. 1099 to 1254) that were enacted to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim control. Since the birth of Islam under Muhammad, Muslims had fought to bring the world under their control. Islam got off to a weak start under Muhammad until violence became the modus operandi. After a few centuries of conquest, though, Islam had spread to North Africa, the Middle East, Asia Minor, and into Spain. By the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks had taken control of Palestine and closed Jerusalem to both Jews and Christians. The Muslim invaders attacked Constantinople (the capitol of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Eastern Church), and were headed into Europe, before the first Crusade was called by Pope Urban II in 1095 to defend the Christian West.

The word “Crusade” was not actually used during this time, nor was “war” since these campaigns were considered more of a religious pilgrimage. After the 12th century, the word was used to designate those fighting on “croisade” – a French term meaning “the way of the cross." During the First Crusade, Jerusalem was successfully recaptured. Crusader territories were established that the Second Crusade (1147-1149) was called to reinforce. By 1191, Jerusalem and many of these Crusader territories had fallen back into Muslim hands, so a Third Crusade was called to attempt recovery. This led to the famous clash between the Muslim leader Saladin and Richard the Lionhearted (who was not able to regain Jerusalem from the Muslim forces).

The Fourth Crusade was launched in 1202, but, for various reasons, ended up coming against Constantinople itself. This divided both Empire and Church, and the East would never forgive the West for the atrocities that occurred (which sadly mirrored previous atrocities from the East). The Fifth Crusade started in 1217 in Egypt – largely going nowhere. The Sixth Crusade in 1228 was directed back toward Palestine. It was successful, but short-lived. The Seventh Crusade lasted from 1248-1254, with Islamic forces destroying the remnants of the Crusader territories. Crusading came to an end shortly thereafter.

Urban Legends

The major issues people cite concerning the Crusades (when they can cite any at all) often involve some of the urban legends surrounding them. It is thought that Muslims were the innocent party and the Crusades instigated their hatred of the West, that Crusaders massacred innocent Jews and even other Christians, that children were sent to war, and that all of this was done to get rich. Perhaps worst of all, the Crusaders thought they would get away with it because the Pope promised them forgiveness of any sin committed while on Crusade. Like most urban legends, these falsehoods are based on only barely true, mostly misunderstood or misrepresented grounds.


The Crusades were not simply unprovoked aggression – as noted above, they were defensive moves to protect Christendom from Muslim invasion. Muslims had been attacking Christians for more than 450 years before the First Crusade. Further, the idea that the Crusades also sparked Muslim hatred of the West is a historical falsehood. The Crusades did not do much damage to the Islamic forces, and not much notice was given to the Crusades by Muslims for several centuries. Muslims did not even seem to take active interest in the Crusades until the early 20th Century.


It has been said that when the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 they massacred every man, woman, and child in the city until “the streets ran ankle deep with the blood.” History and science show this to be poetic hyperbole. A contemporary Muslim source has been discovered that puts the number of the slain at three thousand. Was there violence? Absolutely. In that time, a city that had to be taken by force belonged to the victorious invaders – including people. This barbaric idea actually helped lessen damaging resistance (read Josephus for what happens when this goes wrong) and so served something of a cultural purpose. Thus, while it was a tragedy by today’s standards (although one might wonder at what people in that time might think of our war tactics today), it was not uncommon back then. Further, Muslim cities that surrendered to the Crusaders were left untouched, the people retained their property, and they were allowed to worship freely.


No Crusade was ever called against the Jewish people. Sadly, there were unprovoked attacks on Jewish settlements by some rogue Crusaders, but the Church actually spoke out against them and some local bishops, clergy, and laity attempted to defend the Jews against them. Again, this is comparable to modern warfare – sometimes soldiers go off and commit horrible acts during war – but that is not an indictment on the legitimacy of the war itself, nor of the ruling authority (provided it did not command nor overlook such acts).


Christians did not go on crusade in order to plunder Muslims or get rich. Becoming a soldier was extremely expensive, and claiming an enemy’s treasure was the usual way of financing war in that day. Many crusading knights ended in bankruptcy. The failure of the Fourth Crusade is often claimed to have been caused by lack of funds. The Seventh Crusade cost more than six times the annual revenue of the crown. Moreover, the casualty rate for crusaders were very high – some say as high as 75 percent. The prospects for survival were low, much less getting wealthy.


Ironically, the so-called “Children’s Crusade” of 1212 was neither a crusade nor was it made up of children. Due to religious enthusiasm, some German youth (what most 20th Century westerners would call “adolescents”) proclaimed themselves “Crusaders” and began a march to the Mediterranean Sea. Fortunately for them, the sea failed to miraculously dry up to allow them to cross over to the Holy Land for free. The Pope responded that he did not call this “Crusade,” and told them to go back home.


Another famous urban legend surrounding the Crusades is even found among Christians. Evangelical scholar Ergun Caner criticizes the Pope for promising, “If you go and kill the infidel, you will be forgiven immediately — Paradise,” and concludes that, “There is fundamentally, no difference between bin Laden, in that case, and the Crusades.” This is a gross misrepresentation.

A Bull of the Crusade granted indulgences to those who took part in the crusades for “all penitential practices incurred by the crusaders provided they confess their sins.” These indulgences were similar to those that had historically been granted to the faithful for helping to build churches, hospitals, orphanages, and monasteries. Unlike the Muslim’s guaranteed “ticket to Paradise” for dying in jihad, an indulgence is “not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power. Indulgences cannot get anyone out of Hell. It is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; it supposes that the sin has already been forgiven.”* Rather, indulgences are given for the remission of the temporal punishment due for sin that has been forgiven but not yet expunged by penance. Thus it was the temporal penances associated with forgiveness that were to be remitted.

The promise of ultimate forgiveness of sins required a contrite heart and was offered ahead of time as an assurance that should a faithful Crusader die while on Crusade, his final absolution (“last rites”) was already in place. The characterization of the remission of temporary, purgatorial sufferings of an already-forgiven and Heaven-bound Christian to the singular guarantee of Islamic Paradise for a Muslim assassin who dies in Jihad is fundamentally flawed. The Crusades were presented as penitential acts of devotion, not “get-out-of-hell-free cards.

Holy War?

To even tacitly admit that the Crusades were actions motivated by loyalty to Christianity, rewarded by papal indulgences, and sometimes led by the Church, may seem incredible to our modern Western mindset, but it was not unusual at the time. The Church at that time had the political authority and responsibility to protect the West. By the time of the first Crusade, Muslims had already been attacking the Christian West for many centuries. Something eventually was going to be done.

But were the Crusades really “religious wars”? Clearly not all battles between religious groups are over religion, any more than they are battles over language. Much like the Catholic-Protestant battles in Ireland, it simply is the case that some territories are nearly coextensive with certain faith groups (or linguistic groups, or racial groups, or political groups). If the Muslims had invaded India, perhaps we’d be discussing the “Hindu Crusades” – but they invaded the Holy Land and had their sights set on Christian Europe. Religious motivation was involved in a big way, of course, but the Crusades were not violent means of spreading religion – they were responses to Islam’s actions. Further, not all battles are “wars.” If a city gets attacked by invaders, the people can protect themselves and their city, or help may be sent from another city, without a formal declaration of war.

Just War?

Unfortunately, the Crusades are often simply lumped in with “religious wars” and treated according to whatever standard one uses to judge such events. Ergun Caner compares the Christian Crusades to Islamic Jihads. He believes that there was “a fundamental quantum shift that took place at the calling of the Crusades. Up until the Crusades, we had operated under a ‘just war criteria.’” Caner complains that, unlike the Iraq conflict for example, “Pope Urban [II] crossed the line from a ‘just war’, in Latin ‘bellum iustum’ to ‘holy war’, or ‘bellum sacrum.’” Caner goes on to criticize the Crusades for not being called by a secular authority, not distinguishing between combatants (he gives no justification for this claim), and for desiring to “kill the infidel instead of convert the infidel.” This seems to be a flawed analogy though, as the Crusades were a defensive act against an aggressor – not a formal war.

But even if one considers the Crusades wars, Just War Theory would not necessarily rule against them. Augustine’s criteria for a just war are that it be called by a right authority (Jus ad Bellum) and conducted in the right way (Jus in Bello). These criteria were commented on by Thomas Aquinas, who said the following:

“First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war…(Romans 13:4)…and for this reason Augustine says, “The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority."


There is nothing here requiring a “secular” authority. Further, it should be noted that the Pope, at this time in history, was not simply a “religious leader” of some sect (like Osama bin Laden). The Pope sat at the head of the Christian world – a world that had been under attack for centuries – and the Crusade he called was to come to the defense of the Christian world (not simply to attack infidels whom he happened to disagree with).

"Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says, “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”


It was appropriate for Christians to defend against attacks, and to try to regain lands which their enemy had seized and desecrated. The Muslims were the cause of this problem, and had been for centuries, and defense of oneself or one’s brothers is certainly just.

"Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says, “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.”


The Crusades might not have been called for the “conversion of the infidel,” but they need not have been to be just. Defending one’s life or land is reason enough to fight – and to the degree that that was intended by the Crusaders, they were in the right.


Although many bad things happened during the Crusades, these were not called for by the governing authority. Nor, as it is commonly claimed, were sins committed while on crusade simply forgiven by virtue of their being committed while on crusade. Evil acts were committed during the Crusades because the Crusades were battles fought by fallen humans, and bad things happen in such circumstances. The evil of misdeeds done in a “religious” campaign might be more critically accounted, but they are not necessarily more unusual.

Finally, no misdeeds can be properly blamed on religion unless, of course, a given religion approves of such things.
Originally posted at Soul Device. Used with permission.
(Image credit: Emyoku)

Douglas Beaumont

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Douglas Beaumont earned a Ph.D. in Theology at North-West University. He is the author of Evangelical Exodus, The Message Behind the Movie: How to Engage With a Film Without Disengaging Your Faith, and a contributor to The Best Catholic Writing. Follow Douglas at www.douglasbeaumont.com.

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