The Real Truth About the Crusades: The Glory of the Crusades

Haven’t we all at some time in our discussions with Catholics, both practicing and fallen-away, and with non-Catholics alike, heard the comment in the middle of a conversation, “But what about the Crusades; what about the Inquisition?” While we make our point on some other aspect of the Faith, these two topics are invariably brought up to throw us off kilter because they absolutely know there is no defending either of them. Well, my dear readers, be off kilter no more. Here is a new book, eminently readable, informative and entertaining, that can serve as your bible in defense of the Crusades.

I was not familiar with the author, but through this one book I have become a fan. He has a superior command of his subject, packing each chapter with fascinating facts and characters. His writing style is at once delightfully erudite without becoming ponderous. He is a lecturer in Church history at Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College in Virginia, a member of the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East and a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. Now, with titles and memberships like these, how can he not be an expert in his subject?

Steve Weidenkopf’s underlying premise is that the story of the Crusades that has been popularized in the past several hundred years is a false one, begun during the Protestant Revolution by Luther himself and perpetuated down through the years by the believers in false religions in order to make the Church look bad. The inveracities were then picked up by the purveyors of the European “Enlightenment,” such as Voltaire and Diderot of France and Hume and Gibbon of England. These men hated the Church and did everything they could to make her look bad. Since Catholics have been poorly educated in their own history, they believe the myths perpetuated by these spreaders of lies and hatred and are unaware of the true purpose of the Crusades. Of course, these falsehoods are helped along by Hollywood and the media until the mere mention of the word “Crusade” conjures up thoughts of innocent civilians being slaughtered and their land being stolen by greedy soldiers for their own gain and to enrich the Church.

The Purpose of the Crusades

To understand the Crusading movement in the light of Catholic history, one must know what their purpose truly was. This purpose was simple: to recover ancient Christian territory stolen by Muslim conquerors. These were the lands made holy by the birth of the Savior Jesus Christ, by the fact that His Blessed Feet trod these sands and soils, where His holy mother gave birth to Him at the time and place predicted in the Old Scriptures of the Jews, where He was brutally slain by crucifixion and miraculously rose from the dead on the third day. This soil absorbed the blood of millions of early martyrs before the Church was made legal by Constantine in the fourth century. These lands, occupied by Christians and Jews for centuries and considered holy by both, was systematically raped and wrested from its owners by the invading Muslims who slaughtered and enslaved as they fought their way westward toward Europe itself.

The problem with all the wrong interpretations of the Crusades — that they were motivated by economics, or by the wish to establish European colonies in the area, or for purposes of enriching a particular government, knight or the Church itself — is a historic misunderstanding of the endeavor. They were none of these. They were motivated by the holy desire to gain one’s salvation by fighting to regain Christian lands in the Middle East. In short, they were motivated by Faith. For this Faith, kings, bishops, priests, and ordinary soldiers were willing to fight and die.

The author stresses that the Crusades (or any other historical event) must be understood in light of the times in which they occurred, not from the perspective of the time during which the history is written. This will always give a false impression of the incidents or movements. One must know the medieval Catholic way of thinking — that the Faith was everything, that the lands were stolen by unbelieving and brutal marauders, and that it was important to amass large groups of believers to go on armed pilgrimage to the Holy Land to take that land back for the Christians from whom it was stolen. The Crusades (a term only coined in the early 1700’s) were truly religious pilgrimages, but this time armed, the first armed pilgrimages in the history of Catholicism.

Ingredients of the Crusade

The first ingredient was that the pilgrim had to “take the Cross.” This meant taking a binding publicly-stated vow to God to engage in an armed pilgrimage to help retake the Holy Land. The pilgrim so vowed was marked by wearing a cloth cross upon his clothing which could be removed only upon completion of his journey. The second major ingredient was papal approval of the expedition. The Church in turn promised to provide for and protect the pilgrim’s lands and family while he was away. There were certain spiritual and temporal privileges (such as non-payment of taxes) during his absence. The main spiritual privilege was the indulgence granted of the remission of temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance. (Note that unconfessed sins were not forgiven by the indulgence.) One must never consider this seven hundred year period in the Church’s history an aberration; it was an integral part of being a Catholic during the Middle Ages.

A most interesting section of this book — by way of background — is the discussion of the founding of Islam in the seventh century and the early years of the militant religion. The author states that some modern scholarship questions even the existence of the “Prophet”

and the traditional story of the beginning of the new religion. Whatever is the truth, it was the injunction to fight “holy wars” against “unbelievers” stated in the Koran that eventually gave rise to the Crusades as defensive wars against the militarism of Islam. He explains the rise of the different factions of Islam which still exist today and goes into the advent of the much more warlike and vicious Turkish tribes who adopted Islam and overran the lands from their eastern homeland in the steppes into the Middle East, the islands of the Mediterranean and even to the gates of Europe. (This is a story covered by Dr. Diane Moczar in her book Islam at the Gates, previously reviewed on this site.)

The Event that Shook Europe to the Core

In 1009, the maniac caliph of Egypt al-Hakim cracked down on his own followers, forcing women to veil themselves, then never to leave their own homes. Christians and Jews had to wear identifying symbols and were further humiliated as dhimmi (unbelievers) by paying a high tax and in general being treated as second-class citizens in Muslim occupied lands. The real wakeup call for Christian Europe was the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (called in the Muslim world the “church of the dung heap” – how’s that for good P.R?). This was one of the most important churches in Christendom. Then, when the even crueler Seljuk Turks massacred a group of 12,000 German pilgrims on their way to the holy sites, including the Bishop of Bamberg, just two days before their expected arrival in Jerusalem (on Good Friday, yet), the whole Christian world from the West to Byzantium shook with rage.

Meantime, the attack of the Seljuks on Byzantium came at a time when the Eastern Christian Empire was at its weakest. The humiliating defeat of the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 enabled the Seljuk Turks to invade Anatolia (modern Turkey) thus putting them dangerously close to Constantinople, the Byzantine capital. The ancient Christian city of Nicaea became the Seljuk capital. It was the defeat at Manzikert that became “the shock that launched the Crusades.”

The new Eastern Emperor Alexis I Comnenus (reigned, 1081-1118) knew that he did not have the manpower to fend off the Seljuks; so he put aside religious differences and sent an appeal for help to the only person in all of Christendom who could rally enough troops to send into battle in the East — the Pope of Rome, Urban II.

Pope Urban Rallies Christian Europe

Blessed Pope Urban II must have been some kind of amazing orator because the speech he gave at the Council of Clermont, France, in November of 1095 changed the world. He spoke to the assembly of bishops, priests, and nobles in the open air on three main themes: the liberation of the holy city of Jerusalem, the cruelty and violence of the Turks toward the Christians, and the exhortation to the Christian warriors to take up arms against the usurpers. The offer of a plenary indulgence to those who did so and completed the journey was the main drawing card for the knights and their men. Remember, this was still the age of Faith when everyone knew that the most important thing a Christian could do for himself was to save his own soul. (Of course, it is still our most important job, but this modern world has lost sight of that.) Urban’s plan was to militarize the pilgrimage mentality that was intensely popular at this time in Catholic Europe.

The author includes an interesting explanation of the Church’s just war doctrine as it came down through the centuries from both the Old and the New Testaments. He also explains that the major influence on Christian thinking regarding warfare was the great Saint Augustine of Hippo. Here, too, is explained the difference between the jihad warfare of the Muslims, which is offensive warfare for the purpose of conquering territory, and the defensive warfare allowed by the Church to regain territory taken from Christians. This is all very enlightening and interesting.

Even more interesting is the response that Urban elicited from the faithful, including royalty, the knightly classes, and the common people. Estimates of those who “took the cross” are upwards of 100,000 people — 60,000 warriors including 6,000 to 7,000 knights. The expense of such an undertaking was immense, mostly paid for by increased taxes and donations on the part of the wealthy who were elderly and those in poor health and unable to make the pilgrimage. All the sacrifices, besides affecting the primary purpose of regaining the Holy Land, earned merit for individual souls in their journey to Heaven. Very few who made it to the holy land stayed there. Most returned home to their families and properties, which debunks the theory that they were engaged in a land grab. Some made the journey as a penance for their sins. Certainly there were some greedy and selfish travelers who thought such a journey would enrich them, and some evil sinners masquerading as Christian pilgrims engaged in violence and murder. Fallen nature sometimes brings out the dregs of humanity, such as the crusaders sacking of Constantinople during the fourth crusade, which vicious crime was forcefully condemned by Pope Innocent III who declared the guilty excommunicated.

So Much More

We have barely covered the first fifty pages of our book, and it is 285 pages long (including the endnotes)! The book begins with Jerusalem and ends with “what if?” What if the crusading wars had been entirely successful? Would we see the resurgence of militant Islam as Hilaire Belloc predicted? Writing in the 1920’s, Belloc foretold that Mohammedanism (calling it a heresy of Christianity) would rise again to prominence. Perhaps this would not be the case had the Crusades of the Ages of Faith been able to wrest the Muslim lands from the usurpers and end their domination of the lands of the Middle East and Turkey that we see today. Perhaps Christians would not be suffering the persecution we now see in these lands. Perhaps we would not be so fearful of the unassimilated adherents of Mohammed who live among us. Perhaps….

Between these pages is a fascinating story filled with villains (on both sides), heroes, brave and holy kings, knights and commoners, not to mention the wives and families that gave them up for the holy cause. Many battles are described, and the unfortunate and tragic sacking of Constantinople by so-called Christian warriors is given in all its ugly details..

The story of the pilgrims who “took the cross” is an exciting and edifying one. It is time that Catholics know that they do not have to apologize for these centuries of holy wars to regain Christian lands from the infidels. This book is a great place to learn that lesson.