The Magazine

Fighting the Infidel

The East-West holy wars are not just history.

Jul 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 40 • By STEVEN OZMENT
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Fighting for Christendom

Holy War and the Crusades

by Christopher Tyerman

Oxford, 247 pp., $26

OXFORD HISTORIAN CHRISTOPHER TYERMAN MAINTAINS that the four centuries of holy war known as the Crusades are both the best recognized and most distorted part of the Christian Middle Ages. He faults scholars, pundits, and laymen on both sides of the East-West divide for allowing the memory of the Crusades to be "woven into intractable modern political problems," where it "blurs fantasy and scholarship" and exacerbates present-day hatreds. He has in mind the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Western racism, anti-Semitism, and American-European imperialism.

A prolific expert on the history of Crusades, Tyerman offers a succinct summary of what they were and were not. An evenhanded critic, he levels his lance at both sides: the Islamic and Arab apologists who trace Western imperialism and cultural aggression back to the Crusades, and the "First World liberals and neoconservatives" who demonize a complex and diverse Islamic world with no more sophistication than the crusading polemicists of the 12th and 13th centuries.

As Tyerman persuasively describes them, the Crusades were neither an attempt at Western hegemony, nor a betrayal of Western Christian teaching and practice. When Pope Urban II invoked the First Crusade in 1095, he was belatedly fulfilling a request from Byzantine emperor Alexius I, who desperately needed Western knights to help him reestablish Eastern Christian control of the Middle East after the death of the Turkish Sultan of Baghdad. By sending such assistance, the pope projected the religious ideology and power of an ascending Western church.

The warriors who answered the pope's call were known as crucesignati, "those signed with the cross." Each pledged by word and dress to rescue the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslims, or to die trying. Rather than simple realpolitik and self-aggrandizement, the guiding ideology of crusading was that of religious self-sacrifice and revival, and directly modeled on the Sacrament of Penance. As the priest had the power to transform mortal sins deserving an eternal punishment into mundane penalties easily dispensed by good works this side of eternity, the pope drew on the church's proclaimed "treasury of [Christ's] merit" to erase the mortal sins of warriors who died for God and Church while fighting the Infidel in the Holy Land. Pope Urban was not the first to make such a connection. In the ninth century, Pope John VIII had offered the same indulgence to Christians who died fighting Muslims then threatening Rome.

On its face, the "transformation" of the cross of Christ into a flag of war gives every appearance of a hegemonic move clothed in religion. As Tyerman points out, the Crusades were pure "butchery," with massacres of Rhineland Jews en route and bloodbaths for Muslims and Jews once in Jerusalem. Among contemporaries the crusaders had the mixed reputation of "chivalric heroes and gilded thugs." In the early 13th century, the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade, originally destined for Egypt, became the pliant mercenaries of their Venetian creditors, ultimately turning their lethal skills on the inhabitants of Constantinople.

Although Tyerman fully appreciates the unholy mix that was the crusade ("warfare decked out in moral and religious terms"), he makes a persuasive case that crusading was not undertaken for bread and booty alone. Of the 100,000 crusaders who left for Jerusalem in 1096, an estimated 14,000 reached the holy city, and by 1100 fewer than 300 may have remained--hardly a venture capitalist's dream. Still, in later centuries, when the Crusade targeted heretics, Jews, nonconformist Christians, and enemies of the pope in Spain and the Baltic lands, the "Jerusalem indulgences" and Sacrament of Penance were still prominently there to entice and assure.