The Truth about the Crusades:  Part 3

In the first two blogs, I demonstrated that the First Crusade was called for good reasons and was noble cause!  Without it, Christianity may have been wiped out.  So, while the crusade was a just war, not everything that happened during the Crusades were good or just.  As with all war, abuses and atrocities occurred.

The Crusades were complicated, often disorganized, and made up of all types of people; peasants, nobles, knights, kings, and even many non-combatants.  They were from different countries and under different commanders.  Needles to say, these armies were often hard to orchestrate and control.  Moreover, there wasn’t always clear or competent leadership nor obedience to those in command.  As a result, sometimes bad things that took place.  However, while atrocities happen, it was not the pope or the Catholic Church at large who were responsible for these abuses!  Rogue individuals, or sometimes rogue groups, did the exact opposite of what the pope or their leaders commanded.

Were the Crusades started to take the “riches” of the East?

Regarding the myth that the pope started the Crusades for wealth and riches; the fact is, most of the Crusaders, even kings had to sell much to all of their property just to raise enough money for the long journey. Crusades were incredibly expensive.  And, while a few did find wealth, as soon as they conquered Jerusalem, the vast majority came home with what they started with, nothing.  Some were so poor that they had to stay in Jerusalem and live with Christians there because they couldn’t afford to go home.

Didn’t the Church Kill Jews in the Crusades?

Crusaders who all departed from different countries were supposed to meet in Constantinople and then head to the Holy Land together as one massive army.  However, contrary to what the pope commanded, two small bloodthirsty groups, spearheaded by Walter the Penniless and Peter the Hermit, left early of their own initiative. They led their rebellious armies down the Rhineland to kill the Jews there. Obviously, this was not part of the Crusades and never authorized!  The Catholic Bishops of those provinces tried to protect the Jews by hiding them, even at the risk of their own lives.  While this was rightly condemned by the pope, it unfortunately puts a stain on the First Crusade.

The First Crusade and the Sack of Jerusalem

When the real Crusade departed Constantinople, they spent two years walking and fighting their way to the Holy Land with little food and supplies.  The crusading armies took back Christian lands on the way to Jerusalem winning many battles, even though they were often vastly outnumbered by the Muslims. Many Catholics died of weather and many more of hunger.  The Crusades were always a near hopeless cause, but they bravely persevered.  They finally reached Jerusalem. As the gates of Jerusalem were broken, the leaders lost control of their armies. Infuriated with two years of horrors, frustrations, and thousands of deaths, the Crusaders rushed the city furiously massacring many of the men remaining there – whether they surrendered or not.  Many of the Crusaders burned, looted, and destroyed places, even holy places, something that should not have been done, especially to the holiest of all cities.

While there are many legends of the Crusaders killing so many people that “blood ran up to the knees of people and horses,” this is a myth.  Just imagine in your mind such a silly scenario.  Jerusalem didn’t even possess enough people to cause such an event to happen.  But, there were atrocities that happened.  While not everyone participated in these atrocities, and while the commanders never authorized them, these things are certainly a black mark on the Christian record, and taint and otherwise noble cause.

The Fourth Crusade and the Infamous Sack of Constantinople

The second Crusade was a failure.  The third Crusades was far more successful, overcoming large Muslim armies and securing Christian lands, but in the end, they weren’t able to take the back Jerusalem.  That is why the Fourth Crusade was called.

The dreaded Fourth Crusade!  This is the one crusade out of many that went drastically wrong, and it’s the one that everyone uses as a poster to say, “This is what all the Crusades were like.”  But, this one was the tragic exception and not the norm.  In fact, the Crusade never really happened at all.

The long and short of it is that the Crusading army was on their way to Jerusalem, but they needed ships.  The Venetians agreed to make them a fleet, a fleet that the Christians couldn’t fully finance.  They pondered different ways they could raise the needed money.  Out of the blue, a deposed Byzantine emperor made a deal with the Crusaders, promising to help finance the rest of the ships if they would help him in return to reclaim his throne.  The Crusaders fulfilled their end of the bargain, but the emperor did not.  After discovering there wasn’t much money in the treasury, he stopped his payments.  While this would have been a difficult bridge to cross, something much worse then happened.  Out of nowhere, the Byzantine Christians attacked the Venetian ships with their famous Greek fire, and they burned the Crusading fleet to ashes.  This left the whole army infuriated.  It also left them completely stranded with little food, little provisions, and no way to get to Jerusalem.

As a side note to the upcoming massacre, the Byzantines had a long history of broken promises and harassment of the Crusaders, even making treaties with the Muslims behind their backs.  These treacheries had already cost the Crusading armies thousands of needless deaths. Moreover, the Catholics in the West never forgot the 1182 massacre by the Byzantine Christians.  The Byzantines killed Catholic men, women, children, and priests; babies were cut out of the wombs, and whoever survived were sold to the Muslims.  The attack that was about to be waged on Constantinople fails in comparison to that which was waged almost 100 years earlier.  Needless to say, atrocities like this created a deep anger among Western Christians.

Aware of the hostility brewing toward Byzantium because of this massacre, the pope specifically commanded the Crusaders before they left not to attack the Byzantines, not to harass them, but to go straight to Jerusalem. However, now with their new Venetian fleet burned to the ground, and all hope seemingly gone, the Crusading armies felt betrayed to the breaking point.  With their massive army, they turned and sacked Constantinople killing a great many people there.  What made it particularly tragic were the horrific and unimaginable things that happened by some of the Crusaders, including some reported rapes – things that should never be mentioned among those who call themselves followers of Jesus.

Despite what happened in the past, the Crusaders should not have sacked Constantinople.  This goes doubly for the despicable things that happened there.  Certainly, this is a big black spot on the Crusades during those years.  In fact, this is what Pope John Paul II apologized to the Greeks for toward during his famous apology.  He did not apologize for the Crusades, only for the abuses that took place.

This whole debacle was never part of the Crusade. Remember, the Pope had specifically commanded the armies to travel straight to Jerusalem and not to bother the Greek Orthodox Christians.  Hence, there was a call for a fifth Crusade to do what should have been done in the first place, to take back Jerusalem and make a safe passage for pilgrims traveling there.

Despite the fact that some abuses took place during this time, this does not discredit or take away the original intent of what the Crusades were supposed to be.

The Bottom line is this: The Crusades were a war of self-defense from conquering Islamic armies who were destroying the Christian world, and a war to reconquer Jerusalem and make safe passage for pilgrims.  They were undesired wars in order to protect the whole Christian world from suffering, death, and ultimately… extinction.  If these Crusades did not happen, there is a very good chance we would all be speaking Arabic today.

See “The Truth about the Crusades” – Part 4 for the state of Islam today.