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The Holy Terror

In a speech delivered in 2001 on the first Sunday after September 11, George W. Bush pledged America to a war on terrorism, which he referred to as “this crusade.” There was an immediate outcry across the Islamic world. Did the term “crusade” hint at some grand confrontation between opposed civilizations, and, behind that, a hungry Western imperialism? According to a prominent European Muslim leader, the Grand Mufti of the mosque in Marseilles, the President’s “most unfortunate” invocation of the Crusades recalled “the barbarous and unjust military operations against the Muslim world,” perpetrated with savagery over centuries by medieval Christian knights intent on the “recovery” of the Holy Land, and Jerusalem in particular.

The President and the Mufti were invoking diametrically opposed sets of associations—“crusade” as valiant and costly struggle for a supremely good cause, and “crusade” as byword for barbarism and aggression. The contrast is no recent invention. Christian “holy war” is by its very nature profoundly contradictory—sanctified slaughter (but also self-sacrifice) designed to forward or protect the religion of Christ, who commanded his followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek to the aggressor, and who warned that all who took up the sword would perish by the sword. Yet for all its contradictions, crusading dominated the thinking and policies of Western Christendom for centuries, and shaped some of the most characteristic institutions of the Middle Ages, not least the papacy, which had invented it.

Like the Mufti, historians have found it difficult to approach the Crusades without moral outrage. In the twentieth century, the historiography of the subject was dominated for English speakers by one writer, Sir Steven Runciman, whose three-volume narrative history of the Crusades, first published in 1951, held the field for fifty years. Runciman, a devout Christian, was a civilized and vivid writer, whose view of the Crusades was colored by Enlightenment horror of fanaticism. Famously, he ended his history with a resounding condemnation:

The triumphs of the Crusade were the triumphs of faith. But faith without wisdom is a dangerous thing…. High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.

For all his immense learning, Runciman’s account of the Crusades was limited both by his materials—essentially medieval narrative sources like chronicles—and also by the narrowness of his understanding of what constituted a crusade. He was uninterested in the extensive crusades against pagans and heretics in Europe, and his consequent focus on the struggle with Islam had a distorting effect. Over the last thirty years or so, a generation of British scholars led by figures like Giles Constable and the British doyen of crusade studies, Jonathan Riley-Smith, has transformed perceptions of the nature of crusading. They turned their attention to hitherto unexploited sources, like the records of the military orders, and the charters regulating crusaders’ property, which contain rich material on the identity and motivations of the first crusaders. They brought the anti-pagan and anti-heretical European crusades into the story alongside the better-known crusades to the Holy Land, and called into question some of the stereotypes of the crusaders as uniformly brutal, uncivilized, and basely motivated.

It had been commonly accepted that the explosion of crusading zeal reflected the urgent need for land and wealth of a rapidly expanding European population. Some historians argued that the first crusaders were often penniless younger sons, who saw in the crusade an opportunity to grab land and get rich quick. But the new crusade history showed how ill-founded this hypothesis was, by demonstrating the immense cost of going on crusade: even penniless younger sons needed the financial backing of their families, and this often involved enormous sacrifice and the mortgaging of lands to equip and sustain them. The study of crusade preaching and crusade charters revealed the depth and force of the religious roots of crusade, and the profound appeal of the crusade indulgence, forcing historians to take more seriously the religious motivations for crusade.

These and many other insights have been embodied in dozens of scholarly monographs and papers, including both single-author and collaborative histories of the crusading movement as a whole. But none of these have approached the scale of Runciman’s three-volume classic, until now. Christopher Tyerman, who teaches medieval history in Oxford, offers in his new and massive study of the Crusades as a whole a welcome synthesis for the general reader of the newer understanding of crusade which, despite self-deprecating comparisons between his own “clunking computer keyboard” and Runciman’s pen, “at once a rapier and a paintbrush,” in scale at least does invite comparison with Runciman’s masterpiece. Much more separates the two works than fifty years of research. Runciman was the last of the great gentleman scholar-historians, and his writing stands in a tradition which goes back through Acton and Macaulay to Gibbon, though his cast of mind was worlds away from Gibbon’s sneering genius. The sweep of his narrative, the humane liberalism of his judgments, and his sometimes romanticized admiration for Byzantine civilization are all redolent of a more leisured world, before the professionalization—and narrowing—of historical writing. Tyerman’s sensibility is drier, more sardonic; his perceptions and instincts are those of a working historian trained in the less leisurely ways of the modern university. His narrative, only slightly less comprehensive than Runciman’s and full of fascinating detail, is more businesslike, less colorful.

For all his scholarly balance, however, he can rise to the memorable phrase when required, and he never tries to excuse the inexcusable. So he characterizes the anti-Jewish pogroms that erupted in the wake of the preaching of the First Crusade in 1096 as a “mixture of demotic religious propaganda and material greed” which “combined to create an obscene cocktail of butchery and bigotry.” But by and large his appraisal of both villains and heroes is more cautious than Runciman’s: the great Muslim leader Saladin features here not as Runciman’s wise and humane aristocrat, but as a shrewd politician whose generosity, like his occasional savagery, was carefully calculated. Where Runciman saw in the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the armies of the Fourth Crusade an unsurpassed crime against humanity, Tyerman tells us that it was, by the standards of the time, “an atrocity, but not a war-crime.”

The advances in crusade history since the publication of Runciman’s book are nowhere more obvious than in Tyerman’s lucid exposition of the evolution of Christian notions of holy war. Tyerman is as well aware as Runciman of the inner contradictions in Christian theories of holy violence, but his careful exposition of the stages by which it evolved makes for less indignation and more understanding. Both Christianity and Islam have deployed ideas of holy war: in particular, their armed confrontation over possession of the holy city of Jerusalem has shaped the thinking of both religions about the legitimacy of violence in the service of religion. But Christianity had, and has, more difficulty than Islam in accommodating the notion of holy war. Struggle—jihad—is intrinsic to Islam, enjoined on all practicing Muslims, and sometimes described as the sixth pillar of Islam. This jihad takes two forms—the greater jihad, the internal or spiritual struggle with self for greater purity, the meaning dominant for most Muslims for most of Muslim history, and the lesser jihad, the military struggle against infidels in the world outside Islam—the so-called “House of War”—until the whole human race accepts Islam (which means obedience to God). From the beginning, Islam was propagated and protected by conquest, though in practice the drive to universal conversion was treated as a communal rather than an individual obligation, and was tempered by pragmatic considerations and political realism.

As Tyerman shows, Christian justification of holy violence was an altogether more roundabout and troubled affair. The pacifism of the beatitudes could hardly be literally sustained once Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. War and violence might be inherently sinful, but if Christians were to be citizens, Christianity had to give some account of the right of a state to defend itself, or to resort to force in the interests of law and order. In the writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries the basis for a Christian theory of just war emerged: war might be legitimate where the cause was just (as in self-defense against an aggressor), where it was declared by legitimate authority (for example by the emperor), and where the intentions of those fighting it were good (and not a pretext for grudge or gain).

But just war was still not holy war: a Christian theory of holy war would only emerge as a result of the application of Old Testament and apocalyptic models of battle in God’s cause to the circumstances of barbarian Europe. European society in the early Middle Ages was ruled not by kings but by a multitude of local warlords, and the rights and liberties of the Church, indeed at times its very survival, were extremely vulnerable in the face of external threats like pagan or Islamic attack, and internally to simple violent greed. In such a world, the armed warrior who fought to secure the safety of the Church or the conversion of the heathen might take on the attributes of the heroes of the Old Testament.

The supreme example was Charlemagne, anointed emperor by Pope Leo III as a protector of the Church in general and the papacy in particular, his sword henceforth the sword of God. In the centuries that followed, this concept would be developed, as successive popes, confronted to the north by militant paganism and to the south and east by the expansion of Islam, offered spiritual privileges remitting sin, penitential “indulgences,” to Christian warriors who died defending the Church against such enemies. By the eleventh century the papacy had become the spearhead of radical reform in the Church, now confronting not paganism but violent and rebellious secular rulers, greedy for the Church’s wealth, compromising her spiritual integrity, resisting her increasingly assertive spiritual claims. These reforming popes saw holy war as a way of securing the safety and independence of the Church. Summoning warriors to the banner of Saint Peter, they offered in return the indulgences of which the pope was the unique source.

The attraction of these indulgences to Christian people derived directly from the paradoxical nature of what was being offered. For all its accommodation to the world, Christianity had never wholly shaken off the conviction that armed violence was intrinsically sinful, at best a regrettable necessity, at worst an absolute bar to salvation. Since all medieval magnates maintained their authority at least in part by force, all were spiritually compromised. The Church imposed draconian and prolonged penances for all forms of homicide, and as a result upper-class laymen were likely to be excluded from communion, and hence from heaven, by their very state of life. Laymen might undertake arduous penances, especially pilgrimages, to expiate their sins, but to be sure of salvation, it seemed they must lay down their arms, even, ideally, embrace monastic life. Engagement in a holy war, however, sanctified the very activity which had before been a barrier to heaven. Here, from the highest spiritual authority on earth, was a call not merely to guiltless but to meritorious violence.

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