Paul Crawford’s essay, “Four Myths about the Crusades” is a wonderful antidote to the received wisdom about the Crusades. According to the standard account,
the crusades are depicted as a deplorably violent episode in which thuggish Westerners trundled off, unprovoked, to murder and pillage peace-loving, sophisticated Muslims, laying down patterns of outrageous oppression that would be repeated throughout subsequent history. In many corners of the Western world today, this view is too commonplace and apparently obvious even to be challenged.
He recounts the long history of Muslim conquest and threats against the West beginning in 632 and extending right up to the First Crusade in 1095. The Popes were key players in the defense of the West.
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. The crusades were simply one tool in the defensive options exercised by Christians.
To put the question in perspective, one need only consider how many times Christian forces have attacked either Mecca or Medina. The answer, of course, is never.
Crawford also rebuts the allegation that the Crusaders saw their activity as leading to wealth. The reality was that, as always, going to war was very costly. “In short: very few people became rich by crusading, and their numbers were dwarfed by those who were bankrupted. Most medieval people were quite well aware of this, and did not consider crusading a way to improve their financial situations.” Further, the main motivation of the Crusaders was religious idealism–crusading would save their souls: Soldiers were recruited, not drafted, on the basis of sermons whose message
worked because crusading was appealing precisely because it was a known and significant hardship, and because undertaking a crusade with the right motives was understood as an acceptable penance for sin. Far from being a materialistic enterprise, crusading was impractical in worldly terms, but valuable for one’s soul. … Crusading was an act of selfless love.
This religious idealism that was so common in the Middle Ages also motivated a great deal of self-sacrificing behavior by monks and other religious personnel, providing a psychological underpinning to Medieval collectivism, as noted in “