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Crusading They Went: The deeds and Misdeeds of Our Spiritual Kin


In spirit and in values, though at an immense distance, the Crusaders were our kin. While not forgetting their many transgressions, we should weep for what they lost and remember with pride their few astonishing victories. Ville gagnée!

crusades5 As a child I was given the stories of Alfred Duggan to read. Duggan, who lived from 1903 to 1964, was an English eccentric and playboy, a college acquaintance of Evelyn Waugh's. Through the 1950s and early 1960s he produced a stream of vivid historical novels, none of them, I think, set any later than the 13th century. One of my great favorites was Knight with Armour, in which Roger de Bodeham, landless second son of an obscure Anglo-Norman family, goes off with Robert of Normandy on the First Crusade. Roger makes it all the way to Jerusalem, taking part in the final, victorious assault on the city. While fighting on the walls, he suffers an unlucky stroke from an enemy's sword and falls to the street below, breaking his back.

Dazed, sick and dying, he raised himself on his sound right arm and looked about him. To right and left the ramparts were black with pilgrims; someone had tied one end of a rope round a merlon, and was sliding down inside the city. He landed just beside Roger, waved his sword in the air, and uttered a great roar of "Ville Gagnée!" ["The city is won!"] Roger was scarcely conscious now, but that familiar triumphant cry raised a feeble echo in his mind; "Ville Gagnée," he groaned in answer, as his head fell forward and his spirit took flight. The pilgrimage was accomplished.

We have been hearing rather a lot about the Crusades recently. Our bearded adversary Osama bin Laden, in his taped speeches, never fails to warn the faithful that the Western world is intent on a new crusade, on breaking into "the abode of Islam," seizing Muslim lands and forcing our odious way of life on the pious adherents of the Prophet. In 1998, he dubbed his network of terrorist groups the "International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders," using "Crusaders" here as a synonym for "Christians." Even in the West, the word "crusade" dwells in the shadow of political incorrectness. George W. Bush's offhand remark on September 16 that "this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while" met with a storm of indignation, not all of it from Muslims. A stern editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reminded the president that the Crusades were "the equivalent of Christian jihads" and that "through centuries of bitter fighting, the word 'crusade' became freighted with intolerance and religious persecution." Bush promptly apologized for his use of the word, which has now been expunged from the White House vocabulary.

It is extraordinary that events of seven and eight hundred years ago should still excite passions. Were the Crusades really such a brazen assault on the integrity of the Muslim world? Or were they what the fictional Roger de Bodeham believed them to be: pilgrimages, in which brave men selflessly took it upon themselves to bring the holy places of Christianity back under Christian rule? If, as seems to be the case, we have to take some sort of position on the Crusades, what position should we take?

We can begin by noticing that Duggan killed off his hero at an opportune moment, just before the First Crusade got nasty. Having entered Jerusalem, the Crusaders sacked the city with terrible gusto. They killed every Muslim they found, man, woman, and child. The Jews were all burned alive in their synagogue, whence they had fled to escape the terror. (Crusaders generally did not distinguish between Jews and Muslims in Palestine.) When Raymond of Aguilers went to visit the Temple area the following morning he had to pick his way through corpses and blood that reached to his knees.

Even worse was to follow in the nearly 200 years of crusading in the Holy Land. During the assaults on Egypt after the fiasco of the Second Crusade, a Frankish army took the town of Tanis in the Nile delta and slaughtered its inhabitants practically all of whom were Coptic Christians. And yet worse: In the Fourth Crusade a combined force of Franks and Venetians sacked Constantinople, the very seat of Eastern Christianity. They looted the Hagia Sophia cathedral of everything with value, and seated a French prostitute on the patriarch's throne to entertain them with ribald songs as they drank from the altar-vessels. A senator of Byzantium who witnessed the events thought that the city would have fared better if it had fallen to Saladin.

It would seem as though the Muslims, and also Christians of the Eastern confession, and even the guardians of political correctness, have a point in damning the Crusades as a blot on Western civilization. There are other charges brought against the Crusaders, too: Were they not mostly, like Roger de Bodeham, junior sons left landless by the custom of primogeniture, gone on Crusade to find a fief for themselves in the East? Was it not all, therefore, little more than an exercise in greed? Is there anything at all redeeming that can be said about these sorry episodes?

The Large Picture

Well, yes. The massacres, though appalling, were not sensational in their time, and were matched by the Saracens at Antioch and Acre. Even before the First Crusade showed up, in fact, Palestine had been consumed by savage wars between the Turkish (and Sunni Muslim) Seljuks and the Arab (and Shiite Muslim) Fatimid dynasty, with massacres by both sides. Before that, the mad Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim, who ruled 996-1021, had wantonly persecuted both Jews and Christians, leveling the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem and even destroying the cave that was supposed to be the Holy Sepulchre itself.

It must also be remembered that Palestine and Syria, and Egypt, and North Africa, and Spain too had long been Christian before the Muslim armies seized them in the 7th and 8th centuries, as Urban II pointed out when he preached the First Crusade. The Crusaders sought to recover by force one small part of what had been taken by force.

Nor do the accusations of land-greed stand up well under modern scholarship. In his recent book A Concise History of the Crusades, Thomas Madden refers to computer-aided analyses of documents relating to the men and women who took up the cross. Of those men of knightly rank, the vast majority were not spare sons, but lords of their estates. Says Madden: "It was not those with the least to lose who took up the cross, but rather those with the most." Alfred Duggan was wrong to assume that a typical Crusader would have been a second son. He was, however, right to make the last thought in Roger's mind: "The pilgrimage was accomplished." The Crusades were, above all, pilgrimages, with a much higher spiritual quotient than is commonly assumed. This was one reason that the Crusader kingdoms could not be sustained. In contrast with colonialists, who emigrate to stay, pilgrims, when their pilgrimage is accomplished, go back home, and that is what all too many of the Crusaders did. In fact, thirty years before the First Crusade, a huge pilgrimage of 7,000 Germans had made its way to the Holy Land without any intention of conquest. They had met with brutal mistreatment at the hands of the Fatimids. Gibbon says that only 2,000 returned safely.

Above and beyond this, if we are to take sides on the Crusades after all these centuries, we should acknowledge that, for all their many crimes, the Crusaders were our spiritual kin. I do not mean only in religion, though that of course is not a negligible connection: I mean in their understanding of society, and of the individual's place in it. Time and again, when you read the histories of this period, you are struck by sentences like these, which I have taken more or less at random from Sir Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades: "[Queen Melisande's] action was regarded as perfectly constitutional and was endorsed by the council." "Trial by peers was an essential feature of Frankish custom." "The King ranked with his tenant-in-chief as primus inter pares, their president but not their master."

If we look behind the cruelty, treachery, and folly, and try to divine what the Crusaders actually said and thought, we see, dimly but unmistakably, the early flickering light of the modern West, with its ideals of liberty, justice, and individual worth. Gibbon:

The spirit of freedom, which pervades the feudal institutions, was felt in its strongest energy by the volunteers of the cross, who elected for their chief the most deserving of his peers. Amidst the slaves of Asia, unconscious of the lesson or example, a model of political liberty was introduced; and the laws of [the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem] are derived from the purest source of equality and justice. Of such laws, the first and indispensable condition is the assent of those whose obedience they require, and for whose benefit they are designed.

No sooner had Godfrey of Bouillon been elected supreme ruler of Jerusalem, eight days after the Crusader victory (he declined the title of "king," declaring that he would not wear a crown of gold in the place where Christ had worn a crown of thorns), than his first thought was to give the new state a constitution. This was duly done, and the Assize of Jerusalem "a precious monument of feudal jurisprudence," Gibbon calls it after being duly attested, was deposited in the Holy Sepulchre (which had been reconstructed some decades before).

That is what they were like, these men of Western Europe. Brutish, coarse, ignorant, often insanely cruel yes: but peer into their inner lives, their thoughts, their talk among themselves, so far as it is possible to do so, and what do we find? What were their notions, their obsessions? Faith, of course, and honor, and then: vassalage, homage, fealty, allegiance, duties and obligations, genealogies and inheritances, councils and "parlements," rights and liberties. The feudal order is easy to underestimate. In part this is because feudal society was so at odds with many modern ideals the ideal of human equality, for example. In part, also, I believe, because the sheer complexity of it, and of its laws and customs, deters study and sometimes confounds analysis. (Define and differentiate the following: champerty, maintenance, embracery.) A certain dogged application is required to get to grips with feudal society, and few who are not professional historians are up to the task, Karl Marx being one honorable exception. Yet it is in this knotty tangle of heartfelt abstractions spelled out in Old French that can be found, in embryo, so much of what we cherish in our own civilization today.

Other Players

None of the other players in the great drama of the Crusades had anything like this to show. The Fatimids were a degraded and lawless despotism, in which none but the despot had any rights at all. The aforementioned caliph Al-Hakim, for example, took to working at night and sleeping in the daytime. Having embraced this habit, he then imposed it on his subjects, forbidding anyone in his dominions, on pain of death, from working during daylight hours. He also, to enforce the absolute confinement of women, banned the making of women's shoes. (Thirteenth-century Muslims were just as shocked by the freedom and equality of Western women as fundamentalist Muslims today are.) The Seljuk Turks, who held Jerusalem from 1078 to 1098, were very little better. They still retained some of the vigor and independence of their nomadic origins, and the rough honor code of the steppe, but of debate and compromise they had only the sketchiest notions. Of the separation of spiritual and secular jurisdictions, they had no notion at all, any more than any other Muslim had. This latter point, so crucial in the development of medieval European society, was also lost on the Byzantines, whose ruler was stuck in the late-Roman style of "Pontiff-Emperor," the font of ecclesiastical as well as of temporal authority.

Man for man, there is little to choose between the Crusaders and the Saracens. Saladin, for example, was a true natural gentleman: courteous, chivalrous, brave, and pious. When his mortal enemy Richard Lionheart was lying sick of a fever in August of 1192, Saladin had him sent peaches and pears, and snow from Mount Hermon to cool his drinks. Contrariwise, the crusader Reynald of Châtillon was a thuggish sociopath, no better than a brigand. (Saladin had the pleasure of decapitating him personally.) Yet the virtues of men like Saladin rose as lone pillars from a level plain. They were not, as the occasional virtues of the Crusaders were, the peaks of a mountain range. The Saracens had, in a sense, no society, no polity. Says the Marquis to the Templar in another great Crusader novel, Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman: "I will confess to you I have caught some attachment to the Eastern form of government: A pure and simple monarchy should consist but of king and subjects. Such is the simple and primitive structure a shepherd and his flock. All this internal chain of feudal dependence is artificial and sophisticated." Well, artificial and sophisticated it may have been, but in its interstices grew liberty, law, and the modern conscience.

If we are to have the Crusades thrown at us by the likes of Osama bin Laden, let us at least not abjure them. It is true that we can barely recognize anything of ourselves in the Crusaders. They were coarse and unwashed. Most of them were illiterate. Of the physical world, they were ignorant beyond our imagining, believing the earth to be flat and the sky a crystal dome. Such medicine as they had was far more likely to kill than to heal — Richard Lionheart and Amalric, sixth king of Jerusalem, were both killed by the ministrations of their surgeons. Their honor was often truculent, their loyalty sometimes fickle, their piety was barnacled with the grossest kinds of superstition. We turn in disgust from the spectacle of them wading through blood to the Holy Sepulchre of Christ, and wonder if we would not have found their enemies the silk-clad viziers of Islam, or the suave, scented courtiers of Constantinople more to our liking. Well, perhaps we would; but let us at least acknowledge that these rough soldiers carried with them to the East the germ-seeds of modern civil society. Palestine proved to be stony ground: but that is the East's loss, as the eventual flowering of those seeds elsewhere was all of humanity's immeasurable gain. In spirit and in values, though at an immense distance, the Crusaders were our kin. While not forgetting their many transgressions, we should weep for what they lost and remember with pride their few astonishing victories. Ville gagnée!



John Derbyshire. "Crusading They Went The deeds and misdeeds of our spiritual kin." National Review (November 15, 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.

The Author

John Derbyshire is a columnist and contributing editor with the National Review.

Copyright © 2001 National Review
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