A lot of the things we half-believe about the Crusades – the series of religious wars that kick off in the 11th century – turn out to be myths.
For example, scholars point out that the First Crusade, set on foot in 1095, was prompted by calls for help from the Christian emperor in Byzantium (Constantinople/Istanbul), whose territory was under threat from Turkish forces. The Crusades were not straightforwardly “aggressive” rather than “defensive” wars – though plenty of aggression features on both sides!
The idea that European knights went crusading in order to make their fortunes is also dubious. Christopher Tyerman (University of Oxford) emphasises that the Crusades actually cost those who went a huge amount:
“There’s a traditional interpretation of the Crusades that they were simply land grabs.
This is highly improbable. If you wanted to grab land if you were a knight in France or Italy or Germany, why go 2,500 miles to a bare Judean hillside that actually was economically rubbish?”
Other misconceptions include the impact on the Islamic world (basically nil, in the long run, as most Crusades failed), and even the idea that Crusades were always carried out against Muslims, or in the Middle East. The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) was a military campaign initiated by Pope Innocent III against “enemies” at home: the Cathars (or Albigensians), a Christian movement, popular in southern France, calling for reform of corrupt clergy and a return to ideals of perfection, poverty, and preaching.
One stereotype about the Crusades that mostly does stand up to scrutiny is the brutality involved. Christine Caldwell Ames (University of South Carolina) notes that the Albigensian Crusade was exceptionally violent:
“It is shocking to people at the time … I don’t mean that as a modern person talking about the Middle Ages – I mean people in the moment point out how brutal and bloody the Albigensian Crusade is.”
The first major military action of the Crusade took place in the town of Béziers, in July 1209. The pope’s army demanded that the townspeople surrender the Cathars – a list of about 200 people. What happened next is one of the most infamous moments in the long history of the Crusades.
The Catholic townspeople refused to give up their neighbours. The Crusaders stormed the city – but there was no way of telling the difference between faithful Catholics and heretical Cathars. When they asked Arnaud Amalric, the papal legate in charge of the army, what they should do, he’s supposed to have given this chilling reply: “Kill them all; God will know his own.”
The soldiers slaughtered everyone in the town – reportedly, about 20,000 people – men, women and children, breaking down the doors of churches to kill those who’d sought sanctuary inside, and then burning the town to the ground.
The army then proceeded to Carcassonne, where they imposed harsh and humiliating terms of surrender on the townspeople. After that, they headed west to the small town of Bram, where they carried out even more appalling atrocities.
Having successfully besieged the town, the leader of the army (now the French warlord Simon de Montfort) commanded that 100 prisoners who had refused to surrender be treated accordingly. He had their noses and lips cut off and their eyes gouged out – all except for one man, who was left with one eye so that he could guide the others. With a hand on the shoulder of the one in front, and the one-eyed man at their head, the file of blind prisoners wound its way to the next town as a warning; in the sardonic words of one commentator, “a visible demonstration of the ineffable mercy of God’s Army”.
How could followers of Jesus, who commanded love of enemies and laid down his own life willingly rather than commit violence, come to this? How could such a war (let alone any war) be deemed “holy”?
William Cavanaugh (DePaul University) reflects on the character of the crusader:
“I think there’s a sense in which you have to answer yes and no to the question, ‘Is the crusader really a Christian?’ On the one hand I think normatively, you have to say no. If you’re a Christian you want to say that this is a misunderstanding of what’s really at the heart of the gospel. But descriptively or empirically, I think you have to say yes, he’s a Christian, and we can’t simply wash our hands of responsibility by saying ‘oh, Christians don’t do violence, because if they’re really Christian they wouldn’t do violence’. I mean clearly this is part of our history and we have to own that.”