We’ve all been there. You’re talking to your non-Catholic friends, maybe answering some of their questions and the inevitable list of grievances against the Church comes up yet again: The Inquisition, Galileo, Renaissance Popes and of course, those dreadful Crusades.
Many of us have our textbook pre-written responses to these objections, usually something along the lines of, “the Church has changed a lot since then,” or maybe, “well most of the crusaders were good, it was just the leaders that were bad.”
Unfortunately, the crusades are one of the many historical events that garner popular recognition, despite little historical understanding. This is why I disagree with M-C Scarlett’s conclusions in her article, “Crusaders: Symbol or Scandal?”
While that article’s timeline began with the calling of the First Crusade in 1095, a better place to begin might be 30 years earlier, in 1065, when Muslim Turks took the Christian-controlled city of Jerusalem.
It was only after years of oppression, massacre and the desecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that Pope Urban II called the Council of Clermont in 1095. The Crusades were first and foremost a war to reclaim Jerusalem, not an unprovoked act of aggression.
The motives of the crusaders themselves are also attacked at great length. One argument often taught in schools is that after a population boom in the late 11th century, many third and fourth born sons, looking for fame and fortune, decided to go on crusade to gain what they couldn’t inherit. What many forget, however, is that the crusaders were not mere soldiers, but pilgrims.
The vast majority of those who went on crusade were firstborn sons, with almost nothing to gain and everything to lose. Many families invested most of their wealth just to be able to send one of their sons. In fact, there are many reports of men impoverishing themselves simply so they could undertake the “journey of the cross”. Even Louis IX (King of France at the time of the Seventh Crusade) spent six times his annual income on crusade before he departed for Damietta.
Most of these men weren’t coming back with plunder either. The casualty rate of the Crusades has been estimated at about 75 percent, and those who did make it back struggled to pay back the debts they took on to go in the first place.
Those who stayed in the Holy Land didn’t fare much better, as the soldiers maintained similar jobs and the nobles often inherited worse kingdoms than those they left. The nobles were so dedicated to the crusading cause that Godfrey de Bouillon refused to take the title of King of Jerusalem, as he refused to wear a crown of gold in the city where his savior wore a crown of thorns.
Furthermore, people all too often look at the medieval world through a modern lens, and of course, this leads to misconceptions about the nature of the Crusades as a whole. President Obama’s claim at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast that “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” is a perfect example of applying a modern worldview to medieval warfare, misunderstanding the state of the world at the time.
This isn’t to say that the Crusades were completely filled with virtue, as John Paul II said, the church should absolutely “ask forgiveness for the historical sins of her children.” The Fourth Crusade, for example, is not a beacon of righteousness. However, the crusaders that embarked on that journey were not malicious but misled, and we shouldn’t discount the crusaders themselves for this.
In World War II, the Allies firebombed the German city of Dresden, killing thousands of innocent civilians, but this doesn’t take away from the heroism of those who liberated Europe from Nazi oppression. The same should apply to the crusaders whose heroism, shown in the liberation of Jerusalem, should not be stripped from them due to their association with those who embarked on the later crusades.
The Crusader doesn’t represent a bloodthirsty barbarian itching for war, but rather a warrior for Christ willing to give up everything to make a positive difference. The Crusader represents a fight for the truth, a fight for justice, a fight for virtue; I can’t think of a better mascot for our school.
The Crusader has been slandered and wronged, and I think it’s time we reclaim its original, honorable and just meaning.