The Crusades: The World’s Debate
Hilaire Belloc. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1937; Republished Tan Books and Publishers, Rockford, Illinois, 1992.
Reviewed by Antonius J. Patrick
Despite its publication a little over eight decades ago, Hilaire Belloc’s The Crusades: The World’s Debate is a book worthy of another look on several fronts. Not only does Belloc present a novel interpretation of the crusading era while providing an array of interesting insights and thoughts, but throughout his analysis the author talks of the role that race and ethnicity played in the conduct of the crusades and in the establishment and tragic fall of the Latin Kingdoms in the Levant.
Ever since the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), Catholic scholarship, mirroring what was taking place within the historical profession at large, either ignored the subject of race, or when they spoke of it, downplayed any differences that might have had an impact on historical developments. This was not the case for Belloc nor for most historians of his time.
The Crusades were inspired by the Catholic Church and the Papacy which rightly saw the threat that Islam posed to the West and encouraged military action to counter it. The Mohammedans had taken over vast parts of the eastern half of the Roman Empire and with it control of the Holy Land which they increasingly made tougher to access for pilgrims. The Crusades were an expression of Christendom’s highest ideals which contemporary secular Europeans could not hope to grasp or understand. The expeditions initial success, the creation of societies in the Levant and their later collapse tells a lot about the historical epoch in which the movement took place.
Belloc takes a unique perspective on a number of aspects of the crusading era which differ, in some cases, quite significantly from most modern scholarship. Almost all contemporary histories are of the school of thought that the Crusades lasted until at least the campaign of 1295 (the Fourth Crusade) while some, like the late J. Riley Smith, see “crusading activity” going well beyond that time.
For Belloc, the First Crusade from its “calling” in 1095 by Pope Urban II, to its improbable and truly miraculous capture of Jerusalem in 1099, was the most important. It not only accomplished its odds-defying goal of freeing the Holy Land for pilgrimage, but in its wake established Western feudal-style governance after its military success.
With the view that only the First Crusade mattered, since it accomplished its objectives, the vast majority of the book covers the years between 1095 to 1187 which ends with the tragic Battle of Hattin in 1187, in which Saladin conquered most of Palestine from the Crusaders. As Belloc asserts:
There was . . . but one Crusade. . . . it was the great breaking out of all western Europe into the Orient for the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre, and within one very long lifetime it had failed; for with Jerusalem in the hands of the Infidel the purpose of the original great campaign was gone, its fruits were lost. 
Everything that came in the wake of the first Christian triumph in Asia Minor was something different:
That historical episode, 1095—1187, was the true Crusade, from its inception to its final failure. All that followed was of another kind. [Ibid.]
Yet, within their initial victory, the seed of the Latin Kingdoms’ ultimate downfall was laid. Strategically, Belloc repeatedly stresses that the crusaders’ failure to secure Damascus proved fatal to their long-term survival. Without control of the city, the later expeditions were never a serious threat to the Muslim strongholds and were in the historian’s words “the rear-guard action of a defeat.” The vital position of Damascus in the overall control of the Levant is not emphasized by contemporary historians.
While Muslim rule appeared to be permanent after the defeat at Hattin and especially after the fall of Constantinople, Westerners would later return. After repelling several Islamic assaults on the European heartland, the next sojourn into the Levant was different, but this time the conquerors came not as Christian liberators but as imperialists.
The colonization of the Middle East throughout the course of the nineteenth century up until the time of his book (1937) was accomplished not by Christian knights, princes, kings or inspired by popes, but under the direction of religiously pluralistic nation-states. Christendom had long been dissolved, and although the new overlords were superior in resources, technology, and skill, their religious vitality was on the wane and would continue to evaporate as the years rolled on. “We have returned to the Levant,” Belloc laments, “we have returned apparently more as masters than ever we were during the struggle of the Crusades — but we have returned bankrupt in that spiritual wealth which was the glory of the Crusades. . . . [N]or is the Levant held as one whole [Christian dominion], but divided between separate nations to whom the unity of Europe has ceased to be sacred.” 
Belloc believed that the West would eventually lose out to a more religiously robust and demographically fertile Islam. Once Westerners strayed from a Christian social order with its defense of the family, the indissolubility of marriage and the traditional role of women as homemakers and mothers instead of co-equals to men in all aspects of life, a drop off in White birth rates would result. The now beyond frightening low population replacement rates among Occidental peoples has proven the ever-perceptive Belloc correct.
While a collapse in White birth rates had not taken place during his lifetime, a more ominous event occurred which would shape not only the course of Middle East history, but world events with the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. With unconditional support from the U.S. government and wealthy Jews throughout the world, Israel would come to dominate the region reducing the neighboring Arab states and extirpating the indigenous Christian population and landmarks.
In the modern era of Political Correctness, one can no longer speak of race, ethnicity, kinship, or “blood” unless one is disparaging Occidental people or their ancestors while at the same time trumpeting the virtues of the assorted non-White peoples of the globe. Not so with Belloc, who was far from alone among his generation who understood the significance of race in the episodes of the human past and how it played an important factor in the creation of societies.
To Belloc, race did matter, and in his view, it was a significant reason why the Crusades ultimately failed to hold their possessions. Of course, there were other reasons that the author duly notes—the failure to control Damascus, the lack of reinforcements both in arms and people from Western Europe, the refusal of Byzantium to come to the Crusaders’ aid, and the lack of a strong monarchy in the Latin states. Race, however, in this instance the “mixing of blood” between the Franks and the Near East population, especially among the leadership, proved deadly. Few, if any, academics today could write such things.
The miscegenation of the Latin nobility with the upper-class provincials led to an “inferior” ruling elite which lacked the necessary talent, ability, and leadership skills to sustain and build a permanent Christian civilization in Asia Minor. A stark example of this can be seen in the loss of Edssa:
We have seen that among other causes the mixture of Western with Oriental blood, especially in the case of the rulers, played a chief part. Now, it was precisely to this that the first of the great disasters was due. … The loss of Edessa … was mainly due to the character of its ruler, the second Jocelyn. . . . The mother of the second Jocelyn was an Armenian. . . . [T]he mixture of blood did here what it so often does; it gave a certain brilliance to the character of the second generation, but that brilliance was accompanied by instability.  …
It must be emphasized, for it underlay not only the tragedy of Edessa but all that followed, up to the loss of Jerusalem itself. . . . it was Jocelyn the Second, who with his contemporary, the half breed Queen Melisande, so conspicuously typifies that new and too-sudden mixtures of races which was largely responsible for the catastrophe. 
The political structure that the crusaders set up was similar to that of Western Europe at the time—feudalism. Despite criticism of it and the Middle Ages in general by academics stretching back to the Enlightenment, feudalism mightily contributed to the widespread level of personal freedom and economic growth found in Western societies. And, it was feudalism’s decline which paved the way for royal absolutism and later the emergence of the totalitarian democratic nation-state.
Like all social systems, feudalism relied on the quality of its practitioners. While the crusaders brought feudalism to the Levant, its application was inferior to that of Western Europe, mainly because of race as Belloc points out:
In the interval of nearly fifty years there had arisen that large population of mixed blood to which we continually return. Most of the half-breeds [were] born of Western fathers and Eastern mothers; others in somewhat smaller numbers, sprung from the marriage of Eastern fathers and Western women. 
Intermarriage took place among the ruling elites and for Belloc it proved detrimental for the sustainability of the Latin Kingdoms. The difference in character and quality of the new racial class was unhappily noticed by Westerners:
Of these [half-breeds] a due proportion were nobles: the social equals of the ruling armed class throughout the feudal world. Some of them (as we saw at Edessa) stood in the highest places. It was inevitable that the pure-blooded Westerners should look down somewhat on the men of mixed blood. [Ibid.]
While they could do little about it, from their comments and attitudes Westerners understood the disastrous consequences from the dilution of Frankish blood:
[The Frank] had to deal with them; they were necessarily mixed up with his life, often claiming equality and receiving all the outward marks of it. But behind their backs they were now given a slang name—‘the colts’ — and it was not meant to be flattering. [Ibid.]
The historian makes an interesting distinction between what a colony or colonizing means and what took place in the Levant. “The idea of a colony,” Belloc notes, “connotes the transplanting of men from one place to another and the vigorous growth in the new soil of the thing so transplanted.”  In this meaning, colonizing did not take place during the crusading era which proved to be of fundamental importance:
Now, the Crusaders did bring all this Western blood onto the coastal plain of Syria, they did plant our religion, our customs, our social organization. But the new thing flourished as a thing transplanted, it flourished as a mixture. There was intermarriage and there was a corresponding change in blood; there was the adoption of Oriental social habits by the descendants of the first Crusaders. [Ibid.]
While Westerners maintained their Latin religiosity, they, mostly because of intermarriage and the difference in climate, became submerged in their host population’s culture:
Men living in Syria had to live under Syrian conditions, or very soon they would not have lived at all. The kingdom of Jerusalem and its dependencies could not remain wholly like ourselves. They took on an Oriental color and upon the whole this weakened them in their task, that of resisting the Orient. . . . That social structure which goes with the climate of the West, invigorated by the northern winter and nourished by the well-watered lands of Gaul and Britain . . . was altered. [Ibid.]
Because of the conditions, perhaps nothing could be done, but the “alteration” was necessary for the crusaders survival which if they had not adapted to the surroundings and from a lack of reinforcements from the West, would not have lasted as long as they did:
It was altered to advantage insofar as it enabled the transplanted to survive — but it was altered to disadvantage insofar as it lessened the pristine energy and tenacity of the transplanted [Ibid.]
Blood lines were instrumental not only in the downfall of the Latin Kingdoms, but in the initial preaching of a crusade by Pope Urban II. A description like Belloc’s of the character and personality of the first wave of Frankish knights would be hard to find in modern accounts of the Crusades:
The Christian, Western host . . . was mainly Gallic. . . . But the blood told, and the Franci . . . had the weakness as well as the strength of their race as it has been known throughout history. They had its intense energy, its aptitude for arms, its sudden enthusiasms and, in such moods, exalted unity of aim;
In today’s politically-correct environment, an author of such lines would be labeled a “racist” even by the Church which Belloc defended throughout his voluminous writings. The Catholic Church, after Vatican II, has renounced its role in the Crusades, even though saints, theologians, popes and Divine intervention have all signaled their approval of the undertakings.
In the depth of despair at Antioch, faced with an oncoming Turkish force, plagued by hunger, disease and insufficient manpower, the quality of the Franks came to the fore emboldened by the discovery of the Holy Lance:
Anyhow, the lance head was found, and it worked a moral miracle. That same French temperament which we must always keep in mind when studying the fortunes of the Crusade, lit a sudden enthusiasm through the army. It was roused from its lethargy . . . it was filled with the certitude of victory, and in that mood it had sallied out by the bridge gate and won its great triumph over the besieging Mohammedan host. 
Despite what has been displayed in movies and television and what has been written in literature and historical accounts, the Western warrior was superior to his Turkish foe in every aspect. “The French mounted knights, when sufficiently supported by the infantry were certain of victory against the light-armed and light-mounted swarm of Moslem bowmen. . . . Weight for weight, stroke for stroke, energy for energy, the Oriental could not stand up to the Western man.” 
Again, it was the “dilution” of Frankish blood that led to the collapse:
The danger would come years on when Western numbers were so depleted and Western blood so diluted that conditions between the opponents would be more equal. [Ibid]
It would be remiss to focus solely on the genetic make-up that shaped the character of the Franks in explaining why the Crusades took place at all. This was the Age of Faith and despite their personal ambition, those who took up the cross were committed Christians who believed that their sacrifice would eventually merit an eternal reward which Belloc accounts for:
The feudal motive was mixed with the love of personal gain, but it is a misreading of the time to think that the love of gain was the driving power of these men. And there was not one of them, not even Bohemond, who did not feel the inspiration of the Cross. The Christian name is perpetually invoked, it is the rescue of the Christian populations in the East which fills the story, and for the common purpose there is always to be discovered, in spite of fierce rivalries, a common action. 
Hilaire Belloc’s The Crusades is more than an analysis of the racial make-up of the brave souls which took up the cross and rid the Holy Land of the Mohammedans. It is an exhaustive account of the factors which made the first wave of Christian liberators so successful and explains why the expeditions and the societies which came in their wake ultimately failed. Moreover, the book is important for it gives insight on the conditions and the mindset of the peoples of Western Europe when the great movement began.
Belloc’s tome is noteworthy for it shows how the writing of history, as have all the social sciences, succumbed to political correctness. The author’s masterful weaving of a discussion of race in the narrative is not a display of Eurocentrism or bigotry, but is explanatory—necessary to demonstrate how and why the events of the era came to be. Ominously, such a historical analysis is no longer possible in the present age.
 Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A History, 3rd ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 1987, 2014).
 While Belloc does not stress it, the First Crusade was aided by heavenly intervention which has been attested to by Crusaders as well as modern secular historians in their narratives. See Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade: A New History (Oxford: University Press, 2004).