Crusader Popes
Crusader Popes; drawing by David Levine

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?

The answer is from north of the Alps. The turning point, as Professor Douglas perceives, was the pontificate of Leo IX, a German nobleman, who brought with him to Rome a number of other northern churchmen, mainly from Lorraine and Burgundy. Immediately a new spirit invaded the Mediterranean world, and this just at the time when another race of northerners—armed adventurers, brigands, and soldiers of fortune from Normandy—appeared on the scene. Their juxtaposition was to be momentous. The prelates preached Holy War; the Normans eagerly practiced it.

The first result was a rift, never subsequently healed, between East and West. Among the churchmen whom Leo brought to Rome was the imperious Humbert, from Moyenmoutier in Burgundy, whose “histrionic postures, abusive language and truculent behaviour” (the description is Obolensky’s) sparked off the crisis in 1054 which led to the schism between the Greek and Roman Churches. And it was Leo IX himself who was the first to preach Holy War, a war (as he said) for “the deliverance of Christendom”—not, however, against the Infidel, but against those very Norman freebooters with whom, a few years later, in 1059, the Papacy would form an alliance which completely overturned the equilibrium of the Mediterranean world.

After 1053, the idea of Holy War made rapid progress. Precedents there may have been, but in its formulation and execution it was something entirely new. Hitherto, in common with the other great religions, Christianity had condemned war as essentially evil, and the Eastern Church continued to maintain its reservations. War might be unavoidable; it could not be good, still less could it be holy. How, then, are we to explain the ease with which the West cast aside so hallowed a tradition?

Perhaps, in the last analysis, the explanation lies far back, in the infusion into Christianity by semi-Christianized barbarians of pagan Nordic elements, the warrier cults of Thor and Woden, the demonic powers of the old Germanic pantheon. The Normans, at least, were not far removed from their heathen Viking ancestors. It was, in short, a distinctive “Germanic” Christianity which burst on the scene, a Christianity which pictured Christ as the “king of victories,” a warrior chief surrounded by his thanes, a Christianity of strife and striving, in which the world was to be conquered, not converted.

Certainly, the new spirit came from the north, and its impact was immense, almost comparable to the psychological impact in our own day of the atom bomb. After 1053 Holy War became the battle cry of the Papacy, an instrument for extending its power and authority. The stages were traced by that admirable scholar, Carl Erdmann,3 and the essential point he makes is that it had nothing to do, in inception, with the struggle against Islam. This is the great paradox which provides the key to the history of the Crusades, the central ambiguity which was never resolved.

Holy War was an ideology devised to rally support against the Pope’s enemies in Europe, a weapon particularly to be turned against schismatics. Gregory VII gave absolution to soldiers fighting the excommunicated German ruler. Henry IV. Even earlier Alexander II sent a banner to William the Conqueror as a symbol of papal support for his expedition to England. The Anglo-Saxon Church was to be brought back under papal control, the new ruler if possible to become a papal vassal. It was the same in Spain. Alexander II’s support for a great expedition of Normans, Aquitanians, and Burgundians against the Moors of Spain in 1064 is usually regarded as the first evidence of crusading zeal, the moment at which the Papacy took the lead in uniting Christendom against the Infidel. The reality is more prosaic. What Alexander was after was the allegiance of the Spanish Church, its subordination to Rome, and also the allegiance of the nascent Christian kingdoms of Spain. The war against the Moors was the means; it was not the end.

And so again in 1095, when Urban II, another northerner, a French nobleman from Châtillon-sur-Marne, preached the Crusade at Clermont. Urban, if later accounts are to be believed,4 placed far more emphasis than any of his predecessors on freeing Jerusalem from the Infidel; but his real objective was Constantinople. To bring back England and Spain and the churches of southern Italy into communion with Rome was doubtless a worthwhile achievement; but the great prize was the Greek patriarchate, Rome’s ancient rival, the reunion of the Churches on the Pope’s terms.

Tactics might vary; the end remained. Twenty years earlier, Pope Gregory VII had conceived the plan of an expedition to help Byzantium in its struggle with the Turks. “His troops,” writes Runciman, “would drive the infidel out of Asia Minor, and he would then hold a council at Constantinople where the Christians of the East would resolve their quarrels in grateful humility and acknowledge the supremacy of Rome.” When his plan miscarried, Gregory turned to other means, and “gave his blessing to an invasion of the Empire by the Normans.” The carrot or the stick. In 1095 it was the turn of the carrot again. The Byzantine emperor had asked for help; “and to succeed in obtaining this help”—as Professor Charanis writes in the chapter he contributes to the History of the Crusades—“he used the argument that it was necessary to liberate the Holy Land from the Turks.” In other words, it was the Greek emperor Alexius who fathered the idea of the Crusade, and the Pope who bought it, in the hope of realizing the Papacy’s highest ambition, the reunion of the Greek and Latin Churches under the supreme authority of Rome.

The Pope’s plan miscarried, for two fundamental reasons. First, he underestimated the response which his appeal to liberate the Holy Places would generate, an emotional upsurge in all ranks of society throughout the length and breadth of Western Europe which he could neither control nor harness. He had wanted a feudal army, an enlarged militia Christi; instead he got a stirring of popular passions and the People’s Crusade. And though he got his feudal army as well, he soon discovered that this also was a force he could not control.

Urban’s idea was to control the crusading armies through his legate, the Bishop of Le Puy, and for a brief spell the legate’s authority was uneasily obeyed. But before his death in 1098 it was visibly collapsing. What caused the collapse were the conflicting ambitions of the leaders of the different crusading bands, particularly the ambitions of Bohemund, son of the Norman adventurer, Robert Guiscard, who had invaded the Byzantine empire, intent on conquest, in 1081.

The Norman impact was the second factor which upset the Pope’s plans. It is discussed at length by Professor Douglas, in what is assuredly his best full-length book to date, and there is no need to repeat the story here. The simple fact is that the Normans, whom the Pope regarded as his auxiliaries, soon became his masters. Bohemund was determined, at whatever expense, to carve himself out a principality, and he succeeded. When Baldwin seized Edessa and Bohemund seized Antioch, three consequences ensued. First, the crusading forces were hopelessly split—“three isolated groups of western European invaders in a foreign land”—and “the little state of Jerusalem” was left “an island in the sea of Islam.” To this degree the failure of the Crusades was implicit in their start.

Secondly, Byzantium was irretrievably alienated by the seizure of its territories, the schism between East and West fatally exacerbated; “Norman policy,” in Professor Douglas’s words, “had divided Christendom.” And thirdly, the Pope’s policy had collapsed in ruin. He had hoped to reconcile the Greeks and establish papal authority over a united Church by bringing succor to the Eastern Christians, but the very opposite had occurred. Urban’s successor, Pope Paschal II, drew the necessary conclusion. In 1107 Bohemund set forth, with the Pope’s blessing and accompanied by a papal legate, on a crusade against the Eastern Empire. The carrot had failed; now it was the turn of the stick.

Meanwhile, Urban II’s appeal had aroused a real, if primitive, religious ardor throughout the West. It was, all indications suggest, anything but his intention. It is, however, by far the most remarkable aspect of the whole crusading story, although in most accounts it appears as little more than an irrelevant complication. “You cannot,” says Grousset, “stir up Europe…without causing some backwash.” No doubt. But that is no reason to write off the “backwash” as “foam raised by the crusading wave,” as “rabble,” “vagabonds,” “ill-converted sinners” (are not we all?), an “intolerable crowd” of “dubious elements” who brought “the crusade into bad repute.” If the Crusades were really a religious movement, not merely a story of plunder and politics, it is here, among the common people, not among the cold, calculating barons of Normandy and France and Sicily, or the ecclesiastical politicians at the Pope’s court, that a genuine, if primitive, religious involvement is to be found.

Because it was primitive, its manifestations were sometimes crude; they included, for instance, vicious outbursts of anti-Semitism. But it was real. “Strong tides of contrasted passions” (as Professor Douglas puts it) were sweeping over eleventh-century Europe; a great spiritual ferment was astir. And it is not surprising that the Crusades provided an outlet and a focus.

The reasons for this ferment are obscure. Most historians attribute it to economic causes. In part, no doubt, this is true. In part, also, it was probably the backlash of the revolutionary conflicts stirred up by ecclesiastical reformers. The old order was dissolving, and with it the old certitudes. By attacking abuses, the reformers cast doubt on the whole existing structure of the Church, its sacraments, its priesthood, even its doctrines. “There is no original sin; there is no purgatorial fire.” What is clear is that popular religion, heresy, apocalyptic visions, and enthusiasm for the Crusades all belong together. They are part of a single movement of spiritual upheaval, a movement (in Mr. Wakefield’s words) toward “new horizons glimpsed on earth or in men’s minds.”

Mr. Wakefield’s book sets us in the midst of this strange world of itinerant preachers, priests and laymen, wandering through the countryside accompanied by their disciples and crowds of enthusiasts and penitents of both sexes. That is why, though the Crusades only figure incidentally in his story, his contribution is so important (it is also extremely thorough and competent). It enables us to see the background from which Peter the Hermit and his associates emerged. There is no evidence whatever (Professor Duncalf’s surmise to the contrary notwithstanding) that Peter ever “received papal encouragement” to preach the Crusade. He preached on his own initiative, as he had preached before; but he preached a message which ordinary people, desperately seeking salvation, could understand. The goal was Jerusalem the golden; but, as Runciman says, for ordinary people “the distinction between Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem was not very clear.” Peter was promising to lead his flock out of their present miseries to the land flowing with milk and honey of which the Scriptures spoke. His was a messianic message. No wonder that, down until late in the nineteenth century, Peter, not Pope Urban, was believed to have been the initiator of the Crusade!

Perhaps, after all, this popular belief was not so very wrong. If the Pope, whatever secondary motives he may also have had, was intent above all else on establishing authority over the Eastern Church, if the great lords’ first concern was to carve out principalities for themselves in Asia Minor, it is not so far-fetched, after all, to see in Peter and other popular preachers who appeared in his wake—Robert of Arbrissel, Folkmar, or Gottschalk—the spiritual fathers of the Crusade.

And though, as we all know, the People’s Crusade came to nothing, we should not for that reason write it off as a momentary effervescence of no consequence. Right through the twelfth century, down to the extraordinary Children’s Crusade of 1212, popular enthusiasm, buoyed by chiliastic hopes, kept crusading enthusiasm alive. It was the fuel which fired the movement while the “western colonials” in the Levant, the “creoles” (to use the expression of Rubió y Lluch), or the “poulains” (as contemporaries disparagingly called them) sought to make their peace with Islam and thereby to stabilize their conquests. “Already,” wrote Fulcher of Chartres at the beginning of the twelfth century,

we have forgotten our origins…. [One man] has married a Syrian, an Armenian, sometimes even a baptized Saracen, and lives with a whole fine native family. We speak all the diverse languages of the country in turn. The settler has become a native; the immigrant cannot be distinguished from the old resident.

There is another point as well: the divergence of aim between the simple crusaders and the self-seeking lords. It came to a head, as Grousset points out, as early as 1099, when, faced by a “display of feudal cupidity,” the “poor folk” rose in rebellion. “Quarrels over Antioch, quarrels over Marra, in every place God delivers to us, disputes between our princes!”

But it was not only, as time passed, against the princes that indignation turned, but also against the Church which supported them. There are many causes for the heresies which pullulated in twelfth-century Europe, but the Crusade is certainly one of them. As P. A. Throop has pointed out, in one of the few recent works on crusading history to break new ground,5 criticism of the Crusade set in early, and soon attacked the whole crusading ideology, particularly its militancy. It is no accident that the heretics whose doctrines Mr. Wakefield so carefully analyzes insist again and again that their church “refrains from killing,” adding significantly that “the Roman Church does so.” And from this it was not far to a frontal attack on the Papacy. “The apostolic office has been corrupted through involvement in secular business…the Roman Church is not the Church of God, but a church rejected and fruitless.”

One result of the Crusades, so aptly described as “the foreign policy of the reforming papacy,” was a reaction against the Church Militant which, though staved off at certain periods, never thereafter lost impetus. Involved in war and politics, the Papacy forfeited its hold over the conscience of Christendom. And for the Western Church itself the Crusades marked a decisive parting of the ways, the moment when the attitude of converting the world—if necessary, by force—gained the upper hand over the old Christian dogma of withdrawal from it. It was an ominous moment when (as Professor Douglas puts it) “the militia Christi was no longer visualized as hermits or ascetic ‘Athletes of Christ’ or…praying monks,” but as “the armed might of the West mobilized for war under papal leadership.”

The “theology of armed action” set apart the Western Church from the Orthodox Church of the East, which remained faithful to earlier Christian tradition, always mindful (in Sir Steven Runciman’s words) that its business was “to see to the welfare of the soul.” It was a schism even more profound than the political breach between East and West, which the Crusades also finally made irretrievable; for it is here that we find the roots of that “tradition of excess—of violence for transcendental and essentially unattainable goals”—and that “quest for a total solution” which Stillman and Pfaff describe as “the dark besetting sin of the Western political experience.”

What has forced us to revise our verdict on the Crusades is our experience of total war and the hazards of living in a thermonuclear age. War is always evil, if sometimes an inescapable evil; Holy War is the evil of evils. We no longer regard the Crusades, as Grousset did, as a great movement in defense of Western Christendom, but rather as the manifestation of a new, driving, aggressive spirit which now became the mark of Western civilization. We no longer regard the Latin states of Asia Minor as outposts of civilization in a world of unbelievers, but rather as radically unstable centers of colonial exploitation, as transient as the “gaudy empires spatchcocked together” by other colonial adventurers in the nineteenth century. There is perhaps a line running from Bohemund of Antioch to Cecil Rhodes.

But if our perception of the Crusades and their significance has changed since 1939, our history—not for the only time—lags behind. Runciman6 taught us to see the Crusades through the eyes of Islam and of Byzantium, not merely through those of the West; but we still await a history of the Crusades which views them with the Western eyes of today and not of yesterday. Above all else, the desire to mitigate the more sordid aspects of the crusading story by picturing them as the supreme expression of medieval piety is still extraordinarily strong. Even Professor Douglas spends much time discussing whether the Normans were inspired by a “genuine enthusiasm…for the ideals of the Holy War,” or whether they “used the religious impulse as the thinnest cloak for wanton aggression.”

The question is really irrelevant. No one seriously denies the existence of genuine religious motives—though they were strongest among the rank and file, where they had least chance of affecting the outcome—any more than anyone seriously denies the sincerity of the ideological exponents of modern imperialism. The point is rather, as Trevor-Roper has said, that “the Crusades were not just a religious movement,” and as long as we continue to regard them as such, we shall fail to see their real historical significance.

A modern history of the Crusades—if one is ever written—will seek to explore and not to harmonize the dichotomies. It will face squarely the colonial aspects of the crusading movement, and re-examine the history of the crusading states of Asia Minor in the context of European colonialism. Here, indeed, is a theme for that comparative history of which we hear so much and see so little! As Trevor-Roper has reminded us, eighteenth-century historians, more robust and cosmopolitan than we, judged the Crusades far differently. In Gibbon’s view, the “lives and labours” of the Europeans “buried in the East would have been more profitably employed in the improvement of their native country.” “The accumulated stock of industry and wealth,” he added, “would have overflowed in navigation and trade; and the Latins would have been enriched…by a pure and friendly correspondence with the climates of the East.” Robertson, more succinctly, described the Crusades as “a singular monument of human folly.” Deus le volt, shouted the crowd at Clermont; they may have been right, but I doubt it.

This Issue

May 21, 1970