The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land, Thomas Asbridge

The Crusades have often been a fascination of mine. There is so much to be unearthed in these conflicts, and they are sadly misrepresented in the mainstream media. There are actually people who believe that the “Children’s Crusade” was a horde of children sailing to fight to take back Jerusalem. I thought this would be a good start to learning a little bit more about this era. Thomas Asbridge is also an excellent historian and I’ve read several books by him already.

It’s hard to say why the Crusades were first fought. Asbridge is under the opinion that the Muslims were not a big threat when they threatened Eastern Christendom in the 11th century. However, I’ve read many opinions to the contrary. There are scholars that would definitively point to the migration as a major threat to European sovereignty and the First Crusade was a response to this. I think I am more aligned with the latter, but who am I?

Pope Urban II called for the Crusade in 1095. As mentioned, it was to fight back against the migration of Muslims into Anatolia in modern day Turkey. The First Crusade was very successful. The Muslims did not anticipate a showdown from Western powers and were entirely unprepared for the invasion. The Christians made it all the way to Jerusalem and then populated the route with rulers.

What ensued was a few minor Crusades until the Muslim ruler Saladin retook Jerusalem in the 12th century. It was not amidst a bloody battle, but rather diplomacy (unlike the depiction in the film, “The Kingdom of Heaven”). I loved the parts of the book that spoke about the King of Jerusalem and leper because of his role in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Many smaller battles took place throughout the Middle East in an attempt by the Christians to return it to Frankish hands. But many of them were either doomed to failure or were not properly funded and fizzled out (the aforementioned Children’s Crusade was among these).

While I could go on about the contents of this book, I think there are some striking points that need to be made:

1. First, the Crusades are traditionally seen as a war against Christians and Muslims. This isn’t exactly true. Only in perhaps the First Crusade was the Church intimately involved. The Church helped raise money and an army in that Crusade, but took a lesser role in subsequent raids. Mostly because fund raising was massively unpopular. The Roman Catholic Church initiated a Crusade tax that required the poor peasants of Europe to pay more money to the organization. Without a consistent cash flow, the Crusades were pretty much doomed to failure (as was the rule in the latter Crusades). In the Crusades post the 11th century, the state was actually the most involved party, such as the Third Crusade led by King Richard the Lionheart from England.

2. There is also a misnomer that the Muslims were victims in this whole affair. If you remember, the Muslims were taking land away from Christians which started this whole mess. Further, many want to point the finger and say the Christians committed many atrocities throughout the campaigns. This could be equally said of the Muslims. There were no innocent parties in the Crusades, as war tends to bring out.

3. One of the biggest legacies of the Crusades was the implementation of indulgences. Pope Urban II claimed that if the crusaders took part in the war, their sins could be forgiven. Or that’s how people spin it. Actually what is more accurate is that this was a kind of myth that was perpetuated throughout Europe to garner support for the war. Urban never explicitly said this but implied it. What happened in later decades was a way to cleanse sins that mimicked this kind of remission of sins. This was primarily through the medium of indulgences. Indulgences essentially were payments to the Church that cleansed you of sin. This became a widespread practice around the time of the Crusades and was one of the key catalysts to the Reformation.

In the end, no one is particularly happy about the Crusades. Progressives point to it just to decry the maliciousness and racist tendencies of the Christians. Christians point to it with some embarrassment. But understanding the Crusades in their historical context makes one wonder: would you have supported it if you had lived during this time? Asking yourself that question, you might unequivocally say, yes. Further, it is absurd to try equivocating the Crusades with the modern time. It was a different era and there were many more bloody battles fought over less throughout history. The legacy of the Crusades are one that liberals tend to love and that conservatives hate. There is really no need for either of these extremes.

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