In part one of this series I discussed two common myths about the Crusades - that the crusades were unprovoked wars of Christian aggression, and that they were waged by unprincipled greedy men who used religion as a pretext to kill, conquer, and steal from Muslims. Those are, however, far from the only myths concerning the crusades. Some myths actually incorporate very modern political understandings of the world which have nothing to do with the Middle Ages. Take, for instance, the following:
Myth # 3: The Crusades were really wars of European colonialism.
Clearly this myth is anachronistic . Was there even something we could call ‘Europe’ through much of the Middle Ages? Oh, certainly there was a Christendom, and that Christendom did in fact incorporate all of modern Western Europe as well as Central and Eastern Europe stretching into Russia and even south into the Mediterranean, but ‘Europe’ was in many respects a budding idea rather than a solidified reality. Medieval Christians living in Europe also had much different beliefs regarding race and ethnicity than did colonialists in the modern period. Racism of the kind so common among colonialists in the modern period simply had no place in the Middle Ages.
Throughout history richer, more sophisticated, more technologically advanced societies colonized those peoples and places which were far poorer, less sophisticated, and technologically backward. There are some exceptions to this rule, of course, such as when the nomadic Mongols colonized much of Asia even though they were definitely a rougher hewn lot than the peoples they conquered. These exceptions were rare. The Muslim world in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was dramatically more sophisticated, wealthier, and technologically advanced - especially in fortifications - than the Crusaders who challenged it. And since the lands in question were once Christian lands, who really were the colonialists? Wouldn't it be the Muslims themselves?
Even the very reason for the Crusades separate those wars from colonial endeavors started at a much later date. European colonists in the modern period conquered overseas territories largely to enrich themselves seizing control of resources and creating markets among native peoples. The Crusaders neither accomplished, nor apparently imagined, anything like that. The states they created were founded for the purpose of defending pilgrimage routes and holy sites. Local resources were exploited to build up local fortifications, or to support local rulers. Resources and revenues were rarely sent to Europe, and since the Crusaders themselves were essentially multinational in origin - and in fact a number of Muslim soldiers were employed for the defense of these Crusader states - there was no particular colonial master nation on which the Crusaders depended as was common in latter-day European colonialism.
Myth #4: The horrors and atrocities caused by Crusaders justify Muslim hatred of the Western world, and specifically Christians, even to this day.
This myth is one of the more oddly conceived we might encounter in regard to the Crusades. Even if the Crusaders committed innumerable atrocities in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and certainly atrocities were committed, how could any of those crimes justify hatred or violence against Westerners or Christians today? The real issue is the common misunderstanding of the Crusades, a misunderstanding held by both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Many Muslims believe a number of myths which play into similar erroneous beliefs held by modern Westerners. Muslims, for instance, commonly believe Jerusalem has a very central place in the history of Islam since it contains the third holiest place in Islam – the Al Aqsa Mosque. In reality, however, Jerusalem was often ignored by Muslims and treated as a backwater. The modern politicization of Jerusalem - through the wars between Israelis and Arabs - has given Jerusalem a central place in the Islamic world which it never held before modern times.
Likewise, the modern antipathy towards Westerners, Christianity, imperialism, colonialism, and almost every other ism around - an antipathy propagated by Westerners themselves - has created a bizarre situation in which Western readers are told not to believe their own eyes. When a Westerner reads Usama ibn Munqidh’s twelfth century autobiography, Kitab al-I'tibar, he is told to ignore the incredibly disparaging and hate filled comments against Crusaders as mere hyperbole. That same Westerner, however, is told to take at face value – rather than as hyperbole – stories of crusader atrocities so monstrous that veritable rivers of blood are said to have flowed in city streets.
In the concluding part three we will examine two more myths about the crusades.
Dr. Tim Brennan