A New History of the Crusades Obama Should Read

Steve Weidenkopf, lecturer at Christendom College’s graduate program, has written a readable, story-like book that provides a blow-by-blow account of the Crusades that simultaneously counters many of the myths that have sprung up around them. Yet he does so without ignoring the crusaders’ missteps. In the process, he makes a major contribution to addressing the myth of “fundamentalist” religious war—which perpetuates the idea that any war undertaken in the name of a faith must be prima facie wrong. A more reasonable standard would be the principles of the Just War tradition.

In The Glory of the Crusades, Weidenkopf explains how the Crusades marked an innovation in the Church’s approach to lay spirituality. Pope “Urban’s summons to Jerusalem was a ‘universal call to holiness’ oriented specifically at the laity, who otherwise believed the only sure way to contribute to their salvation was to renounce the world and enter the monastery.” Many of the crusaders professed sincere faith, and “took the cross,” though they stood to lose a great deal of wealth, if not their lives. Indeed, in the First Crusade, begun in 1096, there was an 80 percent casualty rate.

Taking seriously the faith of the crusaders, Weidenkopf deals especially well with the myths that the Crusades were land grabs or wars of conversion. The crusaders did not insist on converting those living under their control; rather they fought to defend the Christians already living in the Holy Land and those making pilgrimages there. And as for the colonization or imperialism myth, it is debunked by the reality that the crusaders held only a few cities at any one time and left hardly enough troops to maintain the garrisons let alone expand an empire. The vast majority of the survivors returned home, battered and poorer for their efforts.

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Glory of the CrusadesWeidenkopf also fully explicates the many blunders the crusaders made such as the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. He exposes their often poor management and leadership, explaining their failures and successes by painting an earthy, human picture of the personages involved. He notes that, “Unlike modern armies with a unified command structure and highly organized bureaucracies of support, medieval armies were organized by personal relationships” particularly relationships between “individual warriors and individual rulers.” Because of the highly personal nature of medieval military organization, when leadership was lacking or poor, the whole effort floundered mightily.

By embracing the faith of the crusading movement, The Glory of the Crusades contributes a helpful angle to address the oft-lobbed slander that “religion causes war” and that religious violence is uniquely deplorable while secular violence is unassailable.

Today it is unfashionable if not morally unacceptable to be motivated by faith commitments, so

when I first learned about the Crusades and their various missteps, I was glad. Hearing about the many instances where Christians betrayed one another or made treaties with Muslim leaders over conquered lands, I rejoiced, thinking: “Good! The tension between Eastern and Western Christians and the Christian-Muslim treaties show clearly that this wasn’t a war motivated by religion; rather, it was about resources, just as all wars are, secular or otherwise. The Crusades were therefore no worse than any other war; and Christians are no more inherently war-prone than any other people.”

Reading this book has made me rethink some of that. If the crusades weren’t mere territorial expansions, then some other understanding of this movement is in order.

If the men who participated in the crusades were motivated largely by real appreciation for the holy sites of the Christian faith and the safety of indigenous Christians and pilgrims, then in it was indeed a defensive religious war. The proposition that must be rejected is that fighting in the name of faith is inherently problematic or flat-out wrong, despite how frowned upon faith commitments are today in secular democracies.

As Weidenkopf makes abundantly clear, the medieval world was a good deal different from our modern system. There were no nation-states but only kingdoms and lords held in a delicate balance of peace that often broke into war among the worldly princes; the unifying feature of the whole of Europe was not its geo-political authorities, but its faith—“Christendom,” the force of which has sustained Europe still today in its cultural unity regardless of how very scrupulously the EU constitution attempts to skirt around it.

The idea that faith provided cultural coherence in a land without nation-states is very foreign to the modern Western mind. Today the cultural unity organized around “America” or “democracy” is considered valid and primary. Faith is seen as valid only tenuously and certainly second in importance to the nation-state. This difference allows many commenters to blithely decry religious violence as the reprehensible action of “extremists,” while turning an uncritical eye to the ethics of wars waged by states in the name of “democracy.”

So the distinction between “religious violence” and other violence turns out to be a red herring. The standard that makes such acts acceptable or unacceptable is not the name in which the conflicts are waged, but rather the adherence to Just War tenets: is there a just cause for the war? Is it defensive in nature? Is violence used as a last resort? Is there proportionate cause? Is there a reasonable chance of success? Are the principles of justice within war followed such as attacking only combatants?

To use the Just War standard quickly and decisively explains why terrorism is wrong whether it is perpetrated in the name of God, Allah, Stalin, America or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The Glory of the Crusades would greatly benefit from a lengthier section on Just War theory, a conceptual analysis which the book lacks. Still, the historical narrative Weidenkopf provides is saturated with so much appreciation of the Catholic Faith that it challenges the reader who would deny carte blanche the value of faith as such. It also provides a solid foundation of facts to weigh in a judgment about whether or not the Crusades (individually or as a whole) constituted a just war or set of wars.

Weidenkopf’s book certainly offers a description that gives just cause to the crusaders: the unprovoked attacks of Christian pilgrims and priests in the Holy Land. However, the question of proportionality and the lack of a coherent military strategy gave the Western efforts little prospect of lasting success, which is one of the criterion for reasonability in Just War. And while it is true that the crusaders were following standard medieval warfare practices in the slaughter of inhabitants of a conquered city and in executing certain prisoners of war, the normalization of the time period fails to make it morally acceptable, even if it renders their actions more understandable. These were certainly instances where the principles of ius in bello (justice within war) were violated even if the case of ius ad bellum (justice in going to war) holds water.

Peering through the lens of Just War, the jury is still out on the Crusades as a whole. Modern man condemns them, but also misunderstands them. Many holy men and women such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Louis were involved in fighting, preaching or otherwise supporting the various war efforts. The causes for crusading are generally reasonable; the behavior within the Crusades was often questionable or downright faulty.

Regardless, rhetorical use of the Crusades to bludgeon Christians, as President Obama did at the National Prayer Breakfast when he mentioned them as a counterbalance to his criticisms of ISIS, is out-of-line. We should indeed always remain aware of our own sins, which is hopefully all the president was suggesting, but perpetuating the error that any violence undertaken in the name of a faith is wrong is unhelpful and unacceptable, especially while he has unapologetically waged war in the name of the state that violates ius in bellum—such as in the case of drone bombing civilian targets–just as much as any of the crusaders’ actions did. The morality of war doesn’t stand or fall on the entity in whose name it is waged, but on its adherence to just war principles. The state can be every bit as guilty as any faith, so the Crusades cannot be used to unfairly malign religion.

To read Weidenkopf’s account is to read the story of a people of faith defending what mattered most to them, while mishandling some key situations along the way, as humans are wont to do. So give this book a read, contemplate the question of justice and war, and reconsider what crusading meant to the Crusaders because many of the modern myths only hold water by projecting newly invented standards back onto people with standards of their own, even if they didn’t always live up to them.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Mighty King of Chivalry, Richard the Lionhearted” painted by Fortunino Matania (1881-1963).


  • Stephanie Pacheco

    Stephanie Pacheco is a convert and freelance writer in Northern Virginia. She holds a B.A. with distinction in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia and an M.A. summa cum laude in Theological Studies from Christendom College.

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