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Deus le Volt?

The Epic of the Crusades

by René Grousset, translated by Noel Lindsay
Orion Press, 280 pp., $10.00

A History of the Crusades, Vol. I: The First Hundred Years

edited by Kenneth M. Setton, edited by Marshall W. Baldwin
Wisconsin, 707 pp., $15.00

A History of the Crusades, Vol. II: The Later Crusades

edited by Kenneth M. Setton, edited by Robert Lee Wolff, edited by Harry W. Hazard
Wisconsin, 871 pp., $15.00

The Christian Centuries, A New History of the Catholic Church Vol. II: The Middle Ages

by M. David Knowles, by Dimitri Obolensky
McGraw-Hill, 519 pp., $15.00

The Norman Achievement

by David C. Douglas
California, 271 pp., $8.50

Heresies of the High Middle Ages

by Walter L. Wakefield, by Austin P. Evans
Columbia, 865 pp., $22.50

The Great Church in Captivity

by Steven Runciman
Cambridge, 455 pp., $9.50

Every generation, it is said, writes its own history in the light of its own experience; and if this is so, it is not surprising that the great process of decolonization which we have witnessed since 1947 should force us to look again—with alerted eyes and new perspectives—at that first age of European colonialism which we call the Crusades.

What interests us about the Crusades is no longer what René Grousset, writing in 1939, called their “epic” quality, the deeds of valor of Christian “heroes and saints,” responding to the call for the defense of Christendom. We are concerned rather to uncover the psychological roots of this first manifestation of European aggressiveness; to relate it to and see what light it casts upon the later drives of predatory colonialism, from the conquistadors of Mexico and Peru to Hitler’s jack-booted storm troopers; not least of all to discover how Christianity, with its message of peace and good will, was debilitated and deformed until it became, more than any other of the great religions, including Islam, the religion of the sword.

If the Crusades still interest us, it is because we sense that they marked a great turning point in the history of the West; they were the moment at which “the peculiar relationship between Faustian violence and ideology,” between “a near-mystical sense of destiny” and “arrogance,” “brutal practicality,” and “rapacity,” which Edmund Stillman and William Pfaff described as the essential characteristics of Western (including North American) man, first became explicit. Total war, say Stillman and Pfaff,1 is a Western innovation, never practiced elsewhere; and total war is the linear descendant of Holy War, as preached and practiced in the eleventh century.

The changing attitude to the Crusades is more implicit than explicit in these books. René Grousset was a distinguished but rather old-fashioned French orientalist, who wrote a substantial three-volume history of the Crusades between 1934 and 1936; but the present popular work, with its naïve infusion of Christian pathos and French patriotism, was one of his less substantial efforts, and it is hard to think why it should ever have been translated. Certainly its approach is far removed from current preoccupations.

So also, in a different way, is that of the stately History of the Crusades appearing under the general editorship of Kenneth M. Setton. These two volumes (there are three more to come) are also a reissue, virtually unchanged, of an older work. Planned as long ago as 1939, they first appeared in 1955 and 1962; and almost inevitably they show signs of age. For one thing, their very scale is redolent of palmier days. It seems to reflect the view, once common among historians but now discarded, that the way to answer questions is to assemble all the facts in meticulous detail, whereas in reality too often the result is to hide the problems from view behind a dazzling but blinding panoply of erudition.

The two volumes of the History of the Crusades (particularly the second) are invaluable reference books, crammed with information; but they stick close to traditional lines and do not contribute conspicuously to solving (or even illuminating) the fundamental problems. But a significant change of attitude has crept in between the 1955 and the 1962 installments—a change of attitude which reflects, no doubt unconsciously, the transition from the period of the cold war to the full tide of colonial emancipation. It is expressed in Robert Wolff’s skepticism whether anyone any longer will sit down and read this “intolerable dose of marching and counter-marching” from beginning to end. But it comes out far more strongly in his frank description of the Crusades as a “long chronicle of greed, stupidity, treachery, duplicity and incompetence.” This surely is an attitude of retreat, of waning confidence; at all events, it is difficult to believe that Duncalf, Krey, and LaMonte, the founding fathers of this monumental undertaking, would have embarked upon their enterprise if they had believed that its outcome would be so damning a verdict.

The Crusades have certainly gone sour on us in the thirty years between Hitler’s onslaught on Poland and Lyndon Johnson’s onslaught on Vietnam. In the reaction against the pontificate of Pius XII political Catholicism has fallen into disfavor, and Father Knowles shares the discomfiture of many modern Catholics confronted with the Church Militant in action. His account of medieval Catholicism dwells for preference on light and sweetness, on worship, devotion, the religious orders, and the spiritual life, and he is visibly ill at ease with politically minded popes like Urban II. Characteristically the Crusades are written off in four or five pages, less than half the space he devotes to art and music! This is revisionism, discreet and implicit, but contrasting sharply with the proud theme of gesta Dei per Francos, which Grousset makes his keynote. Knowles does not conceal his consternation “that the pope should encourage and reward a great and unprovoked war,” and frankly avows that there is “something repugnant” in “the spectacle of popes and preachers”—he is referring in all probability to St. Bernard of Clairvaux—“inciting multitudes to enterprises…doomed to sordid and bloody failure.”

Noteworthy as this revulsion against the crusading spirit is, it is still essentially negative. It tells us nothing about the historical significance of the Crusades, tending instead to brush them aside as an unhappy aberration, a deviation from the true paths of Western Christianity. Father Knowles, indeed, goes so far as to say that “they were signally devoid of lasting consequences.” But for Father Knowles the Crusades were “characteristically and exclusively medieval,” a verdict which by stressing their uniqueness, necessarily robs them of general significance. In reality, as Hugh Trevor-Roper has pointed out,2 the Crusades were not “a unique, unrepeatable episode,” and we have only to think of Henry the Navigator, Pizarro, and Cortés to see how the colonization of the East in the twelfth century was matched by the colonization of the West in the sixteenth. The significance of the Crusades lies in the precedent they created, the spirit they fostered, the unforgivable twist they gave—unforgivable, at least, in the hearts of the victims—to what has so ludicrously been called “the pilgrimage of Western man.”

Historians, of course, have never had difficulty in finding reasons—“causes,” in the accepted historical sense of the word—for the onslaught on Asia Minor unleashed by Pope Urban II in 1095. Some have emphasized the changed situation in the Near East, the advance of the Seljuk Turks, the fall of Jerusalem and Antioch, the interference with Christian pilgrims to the Holy Shrines; others have emphasized the economic recovery of Europe in the eleventh century, the burgeoning population, the land-hungry younger sons of noble families, and the superfluous peasants, whose pressure burst through the confines of Western society. The trouble with these mechanical “explanations” is that they carry us only to the point where the real questions begin. In the one case, they fail to distinguish between the immediate occasion and the underlying causes, rather like ascribing the First World War to the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914; in the other case, they describe a general condition—rather like attributing the First World War to “capitalism”—but do nothing to explain why the pent-up energy broke out in a particular direction at a particular time.

If we are to get at the essential meaning of the Crusades, another dimension is needed; and it is this additional dimension that is provided by Professor Douglas’s book and the volume compiled by Walter Wakefield, with the help of materials assembled by the late Professor A. P. Evans. They provide it in two important ways. First, they show that the Crusades, far from being a unique or isolated phenomenon, were only a particular manifestation of a great spiritual crisis without parallel until the sixteenth century. And secondly, they show that there existed in Europe forces ready to harness this “deep-seated movement” and use it in their own interests. This power was not, as is commonly alleged, the Papacy: it was the Normans. The advent of the Normans on the European scene was a turning point in the history of the Mediterranean world.

The Normans stood, in Professor Douglas’s words, at “the very center of political movements which were to affect the whole European future”; in particular, they were “the strongest single agent” in the “momentous transformation” which refashioned the Mediterranean world between 1050 and the end of the eleventh century. Of this transformation the Crusades were a part, but by no means the most important part. Far more important was the weakening and ultimately the destruction of Byzantium—still in 1050 “the center of Mediterranean civilization”—as a result of the Norman conquest of its Italian lands and their thrust into the Balkans, predatory attacks which culminated in the notorious sack of Constantinople in 1204.

One of the most important results of the Crusades, in Robert Wolff’s opinion, was “the permanent breach between western and Orthodox Christians.” For Byzantium, Sir Steven Runciman writes, the sack of Constantinople was a disaster from which it “never properly recovered and which it never forgave.” As the Turkish menace gathered round the weakened state, as it became evident that there could be no escape from the coming political doom, the supreme task of Orthodox Christians became “to see that the Faith”—threatened by the Catholic West as much as by the Islamic East—“did not perish in the holocaust.”

Sir Steven’s book, written with all his accustomed mastery and urbanity, is the story of that effort, before and after 1453. It is a story too far removed from our main theme to follow in detail here. One fact, however, which must be emphasized is that the diversion of the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople in 1204, with all its momentous consequences, was not the unfortunate, unforeseen “incident” it is often depicted to have been. Rather, it was “the culmination of an assault of the Latin West upon the Byzantine East that had been intermittently under way for more than a century.” And the precedent was set even before the launching of the First Crusade in 1095. When the Norman adventurer, Robert Guiscard, set forth in 1081 to fight the Greek schismatics and conquer the Byzantine empire, he sailed under a papal banner and with the support of Pope Gregory VII. This simple fact, perhaps, tells us more of the origins of the Crusades and of the spirit behind them than any description of conditions in the Near East or in Europe.

What were the sources of this new militancy, and whence did it come? For new it was. The relations of East and West were on the whole peaceful in the first half of the eleventh century. Bari and Amalfi, even Venice, traded amicably with the Arabs; to begin with, as Trevor-Roper points out, “the Crusades were a positive setback to the Italian towns.” Equally important, the Greek and Roman Churches had settled down if not to harmony, at least to peaceful coexistence. Fatimid Egypt and Byzantium “were on good terms with each other.” In Spain Christian prince fought Christian prince just as much as they combined to fight the Moslem emirs. Warfare there was in plenty, but militancy no. Whence did it come?

  1. 1

    Edmund Stillman and William Pfaff, The Politics of Hysteria (Harper & Row: Colophon Books, 1965).

  2. 2

    Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965).

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