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.

In the year 1095, the Byzantine emperor appealed to the pope for help against the Islamic forces which for twenty years had been advancing through Asia Minor and which had now almost reached the Bosporous. Pope Urban II was himself by birth a member of the aristocratic military classes, whose spiritual aspirations he now decided to focus around the powerful symbolic issue of the recovery of the burial place of Jesus from Muslim rule. A war against Muslim forces in the Holy Land could be seen as fulfilling one of the prime conditions of a just war, counting as self-defense, since it was aimed both at recovering what had once been Christian territory and at relieving the Byzantine regime, bulwark of Christianity in the East, now under mounting military threat. A holy war to recover the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem could also be seen as the supreme penance for those participating—arduous, dangerous, costly in every sense, the ultimate penitential pilgrimage.

The psalms, the staple of the Church’s prayer, were filled with lamentations for the loss or oppression of Jerusalem, the city in which the drama of crucifixion and resurrection had been enacted. To eleventh-century Western pieties it seemed intolerable that the very stones sanctified by God’s death and resurrection should be in the hands of unbelievers; and that feeling intensified when, earlier in that century, a renegade Shiite ruler of Palestine, the Fatimid Caliph Hakim, broke with established Islamic toleration of Christian pilgrimage and ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. For Pope Urban the liberation of Jerusalem from “abominable slavery” was the test of the resolve of Western Christendom to the cause of Christ. Here was a cause which went to the nerve center of contemporary religious sensibilities and anxieties, sanctified employment for the arms of Europe, and, because of its papal endorsement, guaranteed a means of expiation for all sins. And, as Tyerman points out, in case these religious incentives failed to stir the consciences of Europe, Urban, ever a realist as well as a reforming visionary, added the promise of wealth and power: “Rescue that land from a dreadful race, and rule over it yourselves.”

The response to Urban II’s proclamation of what came to be known as the First Crusade was staggering. His appeal was made in a year of prodigies. Spectacular meteor showers filled the heavens, and a bumper harvest suggested that God was miraculously providing supplies for the eastward march. Apocalyptic preaching by zealots like the diminutive evangelist from Picardy, Peter the Hermit, fueled popular excitement, and all over Europe tens of thousands flocked to take the crusade vow, whose emblem was a cross of cloth stitched on the clothing at shoulder or breast. From every country in Europe wave upon wave of armed men, some highly trained and well organized, others a rabble of poverty-stricken enthusiasts, flooded toward Constantinople, the normal route to the Holy Land.

Their arrival alarmed the Byzantine authorities almost as much as the Muslim advance, for in appealing to the pope they had envisaged help from a few bands of professional soldiers, not this invasion of half-savage Westerners, who appeared to their sophisticated Byzantine hosts as unappetizing as the busloads of tattooed, beer-fueled, and bellicose British soccer fans who travel Europe nowadays during World Cup competitions.

Many of the crusaders perished on the journey, many became disheartened and returned home, and those who made it to the Middle East were plunged into three years of famine, disease, and bloody and unrelenting conflict whose savagery would become legendary—notoriously, crusaders besieging Muslim strongholds catapulted the heads of executed prisoners over the walls to demoralize the defenders. The First Crusade culminated in a spectacular and apparently miraculous victory. After a desperate siege, Jerusalem fell to the combined Western armies on July 15, 1099. The bloody aftermath, though Tyerman makes it clear that it was exaggerated by contemporary chroniclers, would leave a permanent stain of genocide on the reputation of crusading. The victors, elated by success and agog both for loot and for vengeance after three long years of desperate danger and hardship, swarmed into the city and butchered everyone they found. Most of the Jewish population were burned alive in their synagogues. Muslim prisoners were coerced into carrying mounds of the dead outside the walls for cremation, and were then slaughtered themselves; the gutters ran with blood, and unburied corpses were still putrifying in the streets five months later. Blood was the cement for the rickety and quarrelsome federation of crusader states, known as “Outremer,” the land overseas, which now formed around the Holy Sepulchre, its precarious symbolic center at Jerusalem presided over (eventually) by a king, and spiritually by the Latin patriarch.

Jerusalem was eventually recovered for Islam in 1187 by the resourceful, civilized, and wily Sunni Muslim warlord Saladin (a Kurd born, by one of history’s little ironies, in Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit), for whose valor and magnanimity even contemporary Christian chroniclers admitted grudging admiration. But the dream of a Christian Holy Land would remain potent for the rest of the Middle Ages. Fresh crusades were launched in the 1140s, in 1188, in 1201, in 1217, and on into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. And the concept of the crusade itself was broadened—successive popes extended the crusade indulgences to warriors enagaged in religiously inspired struggles against Islam in the Spanish peninsula, Tunisia, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, against northern pagans in the Baltic, and against heretics within Christendom itself, most notoriously the Cathars in southern France. Popes established a special crusade tax on Church property, and the movement generated its own new institutions, most famously the hospitaler and military orders, warriors who vowed to serve the Church whether in battle or by caring for and protecting pilgrims—the Knights of Saint John, the Teutonic Knights, and, best known of all, the Templars, who have attained in modern times a posthumous fame through dubious pulp-press and cinema fantasy.

The savagery of the First Crusade would remain a recurrent feature of crusading, not merely in the confrontation with Islam (in which both sides perpetrated atrocities) but in the targeting of other victims. In the wake of Peter the Hermit’s preaching in 1095 and 1096, a wave of anti-Semitism swept through Rhineland Germany, and beyond. If battle was declared on the remote Muslim enemies of Christ, what of those other age-old enemies within the gate, the Jewish communities scattered through Europe, whom preachers now declared guilty of Christ’s blood? Why travel to the East to confront Islam, demanded the crusaders at Rouen, when “in front of our eyes are the Jews, of all races the most hostile to God”? Mobs en route to the Holy Land paused to lynch Jews, desecrate cemeteries, and burn synagogues in the cities through which they passed. As Tyerman notes, “Nothing in official Christian doctrine justified slaying Jews.” But in the new mood of vengeful zealotry, doctrinal niceties like this carried no weight. The pogroms were denounced by local bishops, and the Jews of Mainz were given refuge in the archbishop’s palace. But such help was often halfhearted, and almost always ineffective. Confronted with the inflamed and murderous mob, the archbishop of Mainz fled, leaving the Jews to their fate: his palace was stormed and the entire Jewish community slaughtered. Official Church teaching might differentiate sharply between Muslim and Jew; but a new level of Christian animus toward the Jews had been established. Every successive wave of crusade enthusiasm would set off further pogroms.

This virulent anti-Semitism was not the only “collateral damage” from crusading enthusiasm. Notoriously, the Fourth Crusade, launched by Pope Innocent III in 1201 to recover Jerusalem, never got there. Sucked into Byzantine dynastic politics, the Western armies converged on Constantinople, ostensibly to back a coup d’état to support Alexius Angelus as Emperor Alexius IV, in return for a guarantee of financial backing for the crusade. When Alexius was deposed in favor of an anti-Western rival, the crusaders invaded and sacked the city, the richest and most civilized center of Christianity on earth, and the capital of the empire which the Crusades had been called into existence to protect. For three days Westerners rampaged through the city, looting and destroying; within weeks, a Latin emperor and a Latin patriarch had been installed, and the annexation of the Byzantine Empire had begun. Pope Innocent denounced the sack as a religious calamity—“How is the Greek Church, so afflicted and persecuted, to return to ecclesiastical union and a devotion to the Apostolic See when she sees in the Latins only an example of perdition and the works of darkness?” Nevertheless, he eventually confirmed the Latin ecclesiastical takeover, thereby cementing into place an undying Greek hatred of the treacherous imperialism of the Latin Church.

The sack of Constantinople in 1204 was one of the events that stirred Runciman’s deepest sympathies as a historian. A devoted admirer of Byzantine Christianity, he saw the Eastern Church and empire as the principle victim of the Crusades. There was never, he declared, “a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade,” for the sack of Constantinople had given the deathblow to the most civilized empire the world had ever known, and had thereby crippled Byzantium’s ability to protect the beleaguered Christians of the Middle East.

This is one of the points at which Tyerman tackles Runciman head on, and he dismisses Sir Steven’s analysis of the disastrous consequences of the sack of Constantinople as “clouded by a crude religious and cultural analysis.” The Westerners, he writes, were drawn to Constantinople in part by the internal feuding of Byzantine factions. Byzantium, he believes, was already in decline long before 1204, and its inability to protect the Christians of the Middle East was one of the causes of the Crusades, not a consequence. And, more generally, he himself is prepared to credit the Crusades with far more positive consequences, seeing them for example as helping to foster the inquisitive openness of Western Renaissance society toward the wider world, in marked contrast to the closed character of some other more sophisticated societies, such as medieval and early modern China.

Nevertheless, as Tyerman himself demonstrates, the events of 1204 were to resonate for generations in the remotest corners of Christendom. Mountains of jewels, precious metals, and artworks looted from Constantinople in 1204, and the years of occupation which followed, traveled west, the best-known examples of which are the bronze horses of St. Mark’s in Venice, stolen from Constantinople’s Hippodrome. But the greatest treasures of all were relics. Western Christianity was obsessed with relics and the sacred power they were believed to radiate—the instruments of Christ’s passion, the bones of the saints. Two of the greatest trophies of the First Crusade were the Holy Lance of Antioch (believed to be the very one which pierced Christ’s side on Calvary), and the Jerusalem relic of the true cross. These objects, “discovered” during the 1090s, became the war banners and protection of the crusaders, and the loss of the Jerusalem relic of the cross when Saladin retook the city sent shockwaves through Europe. But Constantinople was the greatest repository of relics in the world, and after 1204 looted relics, some of them possibly even genuine, poured into Europe. Christ’s crown of thorns, acquired by the Venetians in 1237, passed eventually to the French monarchy, and one of the most exquisite Gothic buildings of the Middle Ages, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, was created to house it. A jeweled relic of the true cross looted by a priest from the imperial palace in April 1204 found its way to England, where it revived and transformed the fortunes of the foundering Cluniac monastery of Bromholm in Norfolk: Bromholm’s stolen relic became one of late medieval England’s greatest pilgrim attractions.

As long as Islam posed any threat to Eastern Europe, crusade ideology did not entirely disappear from Western thinking. But long before its formal demise it had ceased to have any practical consequences, in a world which no longer accepted that the protection of the true faith was the principal responsibility of the secular state. For the historians of the Enlightenment, crusading was a prime example of the evils of bad religion, stirring men to atrocious acts: the figure of the Muslim Saladin, humane, wise, and above all tolerant, became a literary cudgel with which to belabor Christian fanaticism. In the Romantic era, historians, poets, and novelists revived a sense of the glamour and nobility of crusade, and in the hands of conservative nationalists like the French writer J.F. Michaud, the Crusades themselves were interpreted as part of a struggle of civilizations, prefiguring the (benign) advance of the West in nineteenth-century colonialism. This anachronistic reading of the Crusades was seized and turned on its head in the late nineteenth century by Turkish leaders, as prefiguring contemporary Western aggression, though there had previously been no long-term Islamic tradition demonizing the Crusades in this way.

Those searching Tyerman’s book for direct clues to the present state of the Middle East or the confrontation of militant Islam and the West will, however, be disappointed. He shies away from “clear or sonorous summing-up” and he is wary of exaggerated moral praise or blame. In the millennium year, and subsequently on a controversial visit to Greece, Pope John Paul II included the Crusades, and especially the Fourth Crusade, among the historic “sins” perpetrated by members of the Catholic Church. Tyerman mentions these apologies without comment, but it is evident that he thinks themanachronistic. Extracting “the thread of the crusade from the weave of the middle ages,” he thinks, distorts both. That was then, this is now, and he does not believe that the Crusades prefigure any sort of twenty-first-century sequence of events. But they deserve study nevertheless, because they represent an aspect of humanity at its most vivid, and at times, for all their savagery, at its most noble, “an ideal that inspired sacrifice at times on an almost unimaginable scale and intensity.”

God’s War is a first-rate, scholarly, up-to-date, and highly readable survey of the entire crusading movement, overall perhaps less entertaining and less inspiring than Runciman, but more balanced and, as a synthesis of two generations of further research, often much better informed. Tyerman’s publishers have produced a physically durable and handsome book. But it has to be said that the decision to present so extensive a narrative in a single volume of over a thousand pages will probably do the book no favors with the general reader. Each page has almost forty packed lines of clear but small print, and in weight and appearance the book may strike the nonspecialist as hard to handle. That is a pity, for in the gullible age of The Da Vinci Code, Tyerman offers a sane, informed, and gripping account of one of the most characteristic and most extraordinary manifestations of the Christian Middle Ages.