How should modern-Westerns think about the Crusades?

By Jack Hanrahan–Shirley

“The Almighty knows that when one of you dies, he has died for the truth of the faith, the salvation of the patrimony, and for the defence of Christianity. Therefore, he will receive the aforementioned reward from Him”. – Pope Leo IV (To the Army of the Franks)

The phenomena of the Crusades are an interesting conundrum that is part of the historical inheritance of the Western Church. It is well known historically that other Christian states, such as the Byzantine Empire under the Emperor Heraclius or the Aksumite kingdom (situated in modern-day Ethiopia and Eretria) of King Kaleb, launched military campaigns against non-Christian powers, the Zoroastrian Sassanian Empire, and the Jewish kingdom of the Himyarites (in modern-day Yemen), in part from religious conviction or to protect their co-religionists. However, it is the era of Crusades to the Holy Land, beginning with the launch of the First Crusade in 1095 by Pope Urban II and ending with fall of Acre held by the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Islamic Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt in 1291 that receives the greatest amount of vitriol from the internet and causes considerable consternation for the ‘average’ modern-Western Christian. There are many reasons for the current image of the Crusades in the popular Western mind-set. I am not able to cover all of them in a mere 1000 words so instead I will cover what seem to me to be the most important factors influencing both the Church and State narratives of the Crusades.            

Historical Ignorance/Naivete 

Living in our current age where we have so much access to information often strikes me. The staggering ignorance of history is often displayed, or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as an unwillingness to question accepted and popular narratives. For example, when the Crusades are brought up, at say your local dinner party, there will undoubtedly be strong denunciations followed by something like “Christianity causes violence and is bad, etc”. However, history (as any good historian will tell you) is depended upon examining context. You might think that the quote at the head of this article came from an ardent Crusading Pope who wanted to conquer the Holy Land. That is where you’d be wrong, at the time that Leo IV was made Pope, in the 8th century, Aghlabid raiders based in Sicily and southern-Italy attacked Rome itself sacking the suburbs of Rome outside the Aurelian Walls including the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul Outside the Walls. Leo IV’s message to the Frankish army can be seen as pastoral reassurance to soldiers who would be facing death to defend their homes, families, and friends against their Muslim adversaries. This and other unprovoked attacks and Jihads from Islamic powers against Christian lands are not part of the overall narrative to the background of the Crusades in the popular consciousness. Often the image presented is that the ‘advanced’ and ‘peaceful’ Islamic realms of the Middle East were minding their own business and were then suddenly attacked by a band of greedy and bloodthirsty Westerners using Christianity as a pretext to take their land. In fact, the First Crusade was launched following appeals from the Byzantine Emperor at the time Alexius I for help in defending against Seljuk Turkish attacks against Christians in the East.     

Theological Skittishness 

There is another more contemporary reason as to why the Crusades get such bad press in Western Christian and Secular circles. I would politely refer to this as ‘Theological Skittishness’. Dealing with the Christian side firstly I believe this skittishness has come about in part due to many churches in the West adopting an approach whereby various topics and issues that face Christians that the Bible speaks are siloed off to become purely the preserve of theological nerds and academic theologians. At present there are broadly two schools of thought. The first of these I refer to broadly as ‘Survivalists’. These are Christians and churches who put up the blast shields of their bunkers and wait for the Second Coming. Generally, anything that smacks of ‘worldly’ influence is to be put aside in favour of ‘The Church’. Thus, discussions of things such as a Biblical Christian understanding of warfare are seen as unnecessary at best and superfluous at worst. Meanwhile there are those Christians and churches who seek to accommodate Christian theology to the current cultural moment of the West. As a result (unless you happen to be a military Chaplin and even then, that’s not a guarantee) teaching on the truth of the Gospel surrounding the Scriptures’ views on things such as a soldier’s duty and what can be considered a “Just War” are simply ignored either through genuine ignorance or because it disrupts the Hippy Jesus narrative of Western Christendom.

Now onto the Secularists. No doubt there will be some that will be those who will strongly object saying that they do not have a theology on warfare and that is where I’m sorry to tell you but you’re wrong. The current modern understanding of warfare and what constitutes a justified and unjustified war are lifted straight from Christian theology. That is why for example both Christians and non-Christians can say that Ukrainians are justified in taking up arms following Russia’s ‘Special Military Operation’ regardless of how much our opinions around the circumstances and current actions diverge from there.   

How Then Should Westerners Think About The Crusades?

What we as Westerners must do is not fall into the age-old trap of chronological snobbery where we look back at the past and see troglodytes wandering around rather, we should acknowledge the all too human faces looking right back at us. One cannot ignore, nor should we ignore, the crimes and other atrocities that took place during the Crusades but as someone said to me recently “even in a good war you get the worst people fighting it”. This is also where Church and State diverge for Christians there is an answer in the reign and judgement of Christ but for the Secularist there is nothing.


Jack H–S

Resources for those interested 

  • Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades Vol. 1–3 (whilst this is an old series it provides a good overview of the history of the Crusades)
  • John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (gives an overview of Byzantium from Constantine the Great to the fall of Constantinople in 1453)
  • Real Crusades History YouTube Channel (gives excellent resources and discussion of all aspects of the Crusading era)       

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *