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…

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