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.

By contrast, Muslim holy wars ("jihads"), as taught in the Koran, were first and foremost a personal inner struggle for moral purity and secondarily an external struggle against Jewish and Christian infidels--a distinction and restraint Tyerman finds laudable by comparison with the "oxymoronic" Western holy war, which he calls "the ultimate manifestation of conviction politics." Yet, while Muslims grudgingly tolerated the People of the Book (Jews, Christians, Muslims) within Muslim lands, non-Muslims in lands beyond remained fair game to Islam's holy warriors. It is not clear why "oxymoronic" would not also apply to Muslim holy wars in the East. In the end, the religious war, whether the Western crusade or the eastern jihad, seems then as now to have been something of a free radical within both cultures. As Tyerman himself puts it: "So pervasive were the symbols and habits of crusading that they could be turned to any political conflict that boasted an ideological tinge." One may ask whether that is not also true of the jihad we witness today in the Middle East?

Since the end of the last literal crusade, which occurred in the early 18th century, Tyerman sees the crusade surviving in the West as a potent metaphor for "any vigorous good cause" one might want to pursue against an adversary. As such, it is a word that can still break bones. Now disconnected from its medieval Christian roots in sacramental magic and holy war, it is today a "baleful and intellectually bogus" specter "stalking international politics." Here, Tyerman has in mind both skittish Near Eastern radicals and terrorists, who see Western neocrusaders at every turn, and American neoconservatives, whose eyes are also continuously popping.

In the end, the plea of Fighting for Christendom is to lay the era of the Crusades to rest and to put an end to a "cheap historicism" that invokes their historical memory only to inflame, debase, and confuse. Clearly, Tyerman wants President Bush to stop talking about "axes of evil" and Middle Eastern presidents to forgo visions of "mailed knights fighting for the faith under an alien sun."

Here the reader may think Tyerman protests too much and in vain. He tells us that "the Middle Ages were no more or less a period of faith and skepticism than the 21st century." If that is true, why should the 21st century be any more or less peaceful or warring a period than the Middle Ages?

The problems that drive us to history in search of a resolution are often beyond the cure of words spoken or suppressed. They are the intractable problems Tyerman finds crusading language can only exacerbate. We go to history because we cannot talk such problems away and bask in the end of history. We study the past not to avoid repeating it, even in metaphorical form, but to learn how previous generations survived the same mistakes we make. The answer we find there is blood, sweat, and tears.

Early in Fighting for Christendom, Tyerman raises the question of why the Crusades ended. He tells us that the Reformation first "loosened the grip" of the crusading ideology by challenging the medieval belief system that made it possible. The reformers deemed that system to be spurious and corrupt, along with the papacy and penitential system that empowered it. The result, as history records, was a mighty deconstruction, first with ridicule and scorn, and in the end with torch and sword.

Steven Ozment, the McLean professor of ancient history at Harvard, is the author of A Mighty Fortress: A History of the German People.

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