The Influence of the Crusades
The heroic and romantic elements in this attempt to deliver
the Holy Places from the Moslems still make it difficult for
the Western mind to realise the disastrous character of the movement.
Yet the harm it did was so great that some of the most bitter
conflicts of our own time can be traced back to the mistakes
of this well-intentional but ill-advised enterprise. The chief
evil of the Crusades was the belief that military aggression
can serve the spread of Christianity and that the sword can sometimes
be more efficient than the word in the presentation of the Gospel.
They lent support, too, to the idea that the robbery, torture,
or murder of a someone whose religious beliefs were erroneous
was not only permitted but even approved by Christian teaching.
The Orthodox East, when it heard about the Crusades, felt apprehensive
from the very start. The Byzantine Empire held that her army
was entrusted with the sacred duty of defending her frontiers,
and that Christian soldiers who laid down their lives in the
battle against the infidels and barbarians had made a righteous
sacrifice for a cause approved by God. But this was very different
from the idea that Christian monks and soldiers, whose homes
and families were not threatened, were justified in taking up
arms and starting to kill others in far-away lands, in the name
of the Christian religion and for the sake of controlling the
land where the Saviour had lived and died and risen again.
These doubts and forebodings developed into open hostility
when Eastern Christians came under the rule of the Crusaders.
War is always a brutal and destructive affair, and the Crusaders
did not differ much from other soldiers. When a city was captured
its population naturally suffered, and it would have been too
much to expect that a careful discrimination would be made between
the local Christians and Moslems. Everybody was helpless before
the invaders, and one's life and property were at their mercy.
Once the rule of the Crusaders was firmly established it proved
of no advantage to the Eastern Christians, even when compared
with their bitter experience under the Moslem yoke. In many cases
it was even a change for the worse, for their former conquerors
had been more tolerant than Christians of the West, and had allowed
the Orthodox to continue their Church life unmolested. But the
Crusaders tried to convert the Orthodox to Latin Christianity,
confiscating their Church buildings, imprisoning their clergy
and treating them as though they professed a wholly alien religion.
For the West, the events of the Crusades began in an aura
of optimism but ended with disaster and disunity for the Church.
After the death of Charlemagne, the military authority of the
Franks which had supported the Papacy began to decline. The Norman
incursions into Italy posed a real threat to the Church and the
Papacy in 1059 acknowledged its inability to face any threat
from a Norman invasion. How then could the Church reassert its
lessening authority over its feudal monarchs and show that it
had the necessary strength to cope with internal dissent? At
this time a request arrived from the Eastern emperor Alexius
Commenius and Pope Urban II for assistance against encroachments
by Moslem forces into the Holy Lands. Urban II, at this time
in exile, called together on the faithful to mount a crusade,
appealing to the spirit of faith, to regain the Holy Lands from
the sacrilegious hands of Islam while drawing attention to the
political benefits of such a venture. Hollister states that "the
Crusades to the Holy Lands were the most spectacular and self-conscious
act of Western Christian expansionism which represented a fusion
of three characteristics of medieval man: piety, pugnacity, and
greed" (Hollister, 162).
The Church promised instant sanctity to all participants,
a promise of full pardon for one's sins, and a guarantee of eternal
life. Urban and his successors, by granting indulgences, had
sanctified this war as a holy war, and by 1096 the habit of "divinising"
these conflicts became so well established that the Pauline metaphor
of "fighting for Christ" was well interpreted as military
knight service (Heer, 127). Military sacerdotal orders supposedly
were based on high ideals of charity, chivalry, and medical care
for those wounded in conflict, but too often these qualities
were over-ridden by grand and petty political intrigues. By the
time of the Fourth Crusade the papal powers had lost control
over these monastic knights, leading to the excommunication of
the Templars by Innocent III.
The growing animosity between the Greeks and Crusaders
flamed up into open conflict at the end of the twelfth century.
In 1185, the Knights captured and sacked Salonika, the second
largest city of the Byzantine Empire; they conducted themselves
with such complete disregard for the sanctity of Christian Churches
that horror and indignation overwhelmed the whole of the Christian
East. Contemporary Greek historians describe how the drunken
soldiers danced on the alters of Orthodox Churches, how the sacred
vessels and reserved sacrament, together with the icons, were
made the object of the most revolting abuses, and how the corpses
of men, women, and children were profaned by the conquerors.
The Greeks were staggered by the scenes of deliberate cruelty
and sacrilege, for the Moslems, their inveterate enemies, had
always showed a genuine respect for places of worship.