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Top Myths about the Crusades and the Catholic Church #FakeHistory

You have probably heard about that great evil committed by the Catholic Church ... the Crusades. But were they evil? This article explores many of the common myths surrounding the Crusades and the Catholic Church.

Conventional wisdom is fraught with myth when it comes to the Crusades and the Catholic Church. This was not always the case, though.

The Crusades were not even the most significant period in Muslim history until very recently. Until the 20th century, the Crusades were little more than a blip on the radar. Then, Muslims began to profit from using the Crusades in their propaganda.

That's why I drew the following comic strip:

With the support of presidents and historians, Muslims began to explain that all the modern-day terrorist attacks were the result of the Crusades. Did you catch the lie embedded in that nasty piece of propaganda?

If modern-day terrorist attacks were caused by the Crusades, and the Crusades were caused by the Catholic Church, then the Catholic Church caused modern-day terrorist attacks. The Catholic Church is ultimately the responsible party, not the Muslims. Does your brain feel nice and "washed", now?

Top 5 Myths About the Crusades and the Catholic Church

Here's a solid video about the top myths that are trotted out about the Crusades and the Catholic Church. Were the Crusades unprovoked? Were the Crusaders just greedy second sons? Were they lacking in piety? Find out below:  

Islamic Terrorists Using the Crusades Myth as Propaganda 

By Steve Weidenkopf
[Here's the link to the original article, "ISIS Flogs the Crusades Myth"]

The world reacted in horror at the despicable and evil Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.  It is natural, in the face of such evil, to ask why. Why did these attacks occur? Why are some Muslims drawn to groups like ISIS, and why are they willing to kill innocent people in the name of religion? Many believe  economics, Western foreign policy, or religion is to blame. Some believe that history—or, more specifically, certain historical actions—provide the answer.

ISIS, in a statement issued after the attacks, claimed responsibility for the massacre, indicating that “soldiers of the Caliphate” had targeted the “lead carrier of the cross in Europe” and “cast terror into the hearts of the crusaders in their very own homeland.” The statement also referred to the victims as “pagans” and “crusaders.” Reading the statement at face value might lead one to believe that the Islamic state (and other like-minded Islamic groups) commit terrorism the avenge the wrongs committed by Christian knights during the medieval Crusades.

Osama bin Laden and Crusades Propaganda

Indeed, ISIS is not the first Islamic group to make reference to the Crusades after acts of violence. Osama bin Laden stated, shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, “This is a battle of Muslims against the global Crusaders. . . . Our goal is for the nation to unite in the face of the Christian Crusade.”[1]

St. Pope John Paul II's Assassin and the Crusades 

Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who attempted to assassinate St. John Paul II, indicated that he wanted to “kill Pope John Paul II, [the] supreme commander of the Crusades.”[2]

St. Pope John Paul II visits his attempted assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison 

President Bill Clinton and Crusades Propaganda

This Islamic propaganda can lead one to believe the historical events of the Crusades are the primary reason for modern-day terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, many Westerners believe and parrot this propaganda. Former President Bill Clinton, in a speech at Georgetown University in October 2001, opined that the September 11 attacks were the result of the Christian attack on Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade.

Liberal Catholics and Crusades Propaganda

Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun and popular author, has written that the Crusades are “one of the direct causes of the conflict in the Middle East today.”[3]

The historical reality is far removed from the picture painted by Bill Clinton, Karen Armstrong, and others. The Crusades were largely forgotten in the Islamic world until the late nineteenth century and received prominent attention only in the twentieth century.

The Arabic Word for the Crusades Didn't Exist Until the mid-1800s

The Arabic word for the Crusades, harb al-salib, was introduced in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1899, the first Arabic history of the Crusades was written by an Egyptian, Ali al-Hariri, when the Ottoman Empire was in a deep crisis. It was a time when the Ottomans were forced to recognize the independence of most of their Eastern European territory. Seeking to find a rationale for the disintegration of the once mighty Ottoman Empire, the Egyptian author placed blame not on the internal failings of the sultans and their policies but rather on the historical bogeyman of the Crusades.

Crusades Were a Small Part of the Islamic History

It is easy to understand why Muslims did not remember the Crusades: they were a small and insignificant part of Islamic history. The Holy City of Jerusalem was in Christian hands for only eighty-eight years (1099–1187), and the Crusader States survived for less than two centuries. The goal of the Crusades—the permanent liberation of Jerusalem and recovery of ancient Christian territory—was not achieved. Islamic historians through the centuries therefore neglected the Crusades.

This negligence changed in the twentieth century, when reconstructed Muslim memory of the Crusades began in earnest. After World War I, Britain and France were given mandates to govern Palestine and Syria. Ironically, it was these European colonial powers that shaped the modern Muslim interpretation and memory of the Crusades. Particularly, the French vision of the Crusades at the time focused on the twelfth-century campaigns as proto-colonizing expeditions (which they were not), now resurrected in the twentieth century.

Historical Origins of the Crusade Myths

The myth of the Crusades in the Islamic world was created, in part, by European intellectuals influenced by Enlightenment and Romantic interpretations of the Crusading movement. Arab nationalists, utilizing imagery from the British and French colonial authorities, presented the Crusades as the first European colonial efforts and the reason for the poverty, corruption, and violence in the twentieth-century Middle East.

Arab Nationalists and Crusade Propaganda

Cultural traditions and propaganda rooted in this false narrative of the Crusades were reinforced through education in Muslim schools. The contrived and artificial memory of the Crusades in the Islamic world, initially used by Arab nationalists, changed in the late twentieth century as jihadist groups, who turned their attention to the West after originally directing their hatred and violence toward secular Muslim regimes, hijacked the Crusades to further their violent goals. Jihadists utilized the reconstructed memory of the medieval Crusades to incite hatred and anger of the West and increase recruitment for their nefarious cause.

ISIS and Crusade Propaganda

ISIS and other groups continue to use “Crusade language” in their statements and recruitment videos, because it provides an effective tool in motivating young Muslim men and women to engage in violent attacks against innocent people. Like all forms of propaganda, the false story presented by the Islamic state relies on ignorance to achieve its objective. The Crusades are not the reason for the current state of affairs between Islamic jihadist groups and the Western world.

Ignorance about the Crusades plays into the hands of the terrorists by perpetuating the false narrative of these historical events. Terrorism and its propaganda must be combated—and the first step is to know the real story of the Crusades.

8 Myths About the Crusades 

By Thomas F. Madden, SJ
[This article originally appeared in the January/February 2002 issue of Catholic Dossier]

Where Did the Current Mis-Understanding of the Crusades Come From? The Enlightenment & Steven Runciman

It was in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that the current view of the Crusades was born. Most of the philosophes, like Voltaire, believed that medieval Christianity was a vile superstition. For them the Crusades were a migration of barbarians led by fanaticism, greed, and lust.

Since then, the Enlightenment take on the Crusades has gone in and out of fashion. The Crusades received good press as wars of nobility (although not religion) during the Romantic period and the early twentieth century. After the Second World War, however, opinion again turned decisively against the Crusades.

In the wake of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, historians found war of ideology–any ideology –distasteful. This sentiment was summed up by Sir Steven Runciman in his three-volume work, A History of the Crusades (1951-54).

For Runciman, the Crusades were morally repugnant acts of intolerance in the name of God. The medieval men who took the cross and marched to the Middle East were either cynically evil, rapaciously greedy, or naively gullible. This beautifully written history soon became the standard. Almost single-handedly Runciman managed to define the modern popular view of the Crusades.

Modern Scholarship Parrots Runciman 

Since the 1970s the Crusades have attracted many hundreds of scholars who have meticulously poked, prodded, and examined them. As a result, much more is known about Christianity’s holy wars than ever before. Yet the fruits of decades of scholarship have been slow to enter the popular mind. In part this is the fault of professional historians, who tend to publish studies that, by necessity, are technical and therefore not easily accessible outside of the academy. But it is also due to a clear reluctance among modern elites to let go of Runciman’s vision of the Crusades.

And so modern popular books on the Crusades–desiring, after all, to be popular–tend to parrot Runciman. The same is true for other media, like the multi-part television documentary, The Crusades (1995), produced by BBC/A&E and starring Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. To give the latter an air of authority the producers spliced in a number of distinguished Crusade historians who gave their views on events. The problem was that the historians would not go along with Runciman’s ideas. No matter. The producers simply edited the taped interviews cleverly enough that the historians seemed to be agreeing with Runciman. As Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith quite vehemently told me, "They made me appear to say things that I do not believe!"

The Real Story of the Crusades

So, what is the real story of the Crusades? As you might imagine, it is a long story. But there are good histories, written in the last twenty years, that lay much of it out. For the moment, given the barrage of coverage that the Crusades are getting nowadays, it might be best to consider just what the Crusades were not. Here, then, are some of the most common myths and why they are wrong.

Myth 1: The Crusades were wars of unprovoked aggression against a peaceful Muslim world.

This is as wrong as wrong can be. From the time of Mohammed, Muslims had sought to conquer the Christian world. They did a pretty good job of it, too. After a few centuries of steady conquests, Muslim armies had taken all of North Africa, the Middle East, Asia Minor, and most of Spain.

In other words, by the end of the eleventh century the forces of Islam had captured two-thirds of the Christian world. Palestine, the home of Jesus Christ; Egypt, the birthplace of Christian monasticism; Asia Minor, where St. Paul planted the seeds of the first Christian communities: These were not the periphery of Christianity but its very core. And the Muslim empires were not finished yet. They continued to press westward toward Constantinople, ultimately passing it and entering Europe itself.

As far as unprovoked aggression goes, it was all on the Muslim side. At some point what was left of the Christian world would have to defend itself or simply succumb to Islamic conquest. The First Crusade was called by Pope Urban II in 1095 in response to an urgent plea for help from the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople. Urban called the knights of Christendom to come to the aid of their eastern brethren. It was to be an errand of mercy, liberating the Christians of the East from their Muslim conquerors. In other words, the Crusades were from the beginning a defensive war. The entire history of the eastern Crusades is one of response to Muslim aggression.

Myth 2: The Crusaders wore crosses, but they were really only interested in capturing booty and land. Their pious platitudes were just a cover for rapacious greed.

Historians used to believe that a rise in Europe’s population led to a crisis of too many noble "second sons," those who were trained in chivalric warfare but who had no feudal lands to inherit. The Crusades, therefore, were seen as a safety valve, sending these belligerent men far from Europe where they could carve out lands for themselves at someone else’s expense. Modern scholarship, assisted by the advent of computer databases, has exploded this myth.

We now know that it was the "first sons" of Europe that answered the pope’s call in 1095, as well as in subsequent Crusades. Crusading was an enormously expensive operation. Lords were forced to sell off or mortgage their lands to gather the necessary funds. They were also not interested in an overseas kingdom. Much like a soldier today, the medieval Crusader was proud to do his duty but longed to return home.

After the spectacular successes of the First Crusade, with Jerusalem and much of Palestine in Crusader hands, virtually all of the Crusaders went home. Only a tiny handful remained behind to consolidate and govern the newly won territories. Booty was also scarce. In fact, although Crusaders no doubt dreamed of vast wealth in opulent Eastern cities, virtually none of them ever even recouped their expenses. But money and land were not the reasons that they went on Crusade in the first place. They went to atone for their sins and to win salvation by doing good works in a faraway land.

Myth 3: When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 they massacred every man, woman, and child in the city until the streets ran ankle deep with the blood.

This is a favorite used to demonstrate the evil nature of the Crusades. Most recently, Bill Clinton in a speech at Georgetown cited this as one reason the United States is a victim of Muslim terrorism. (Although Mr. Clinton brought the blood up to knee level for effect.) It is certainly true that many people in Jerusalem were killed after the Crusaders captured the city. But this must be understood in historical context.

The accepted moral standard in all pre-modern European and Asian civilizations was that a city that resisted capture and was taken by force belonged to the victorious forces. That included not just the buildings and goods, but the people as well. That is why every city or fortress had to weigh carefully whether it could hold out against besiegers. If not, it was wise to negotiate terms of surrender.

In the case of Jerusalem, the defenders had resisted right up to the end. They calculated that the formidable walls of the city would keep the Crusaders at bay until a relief force in Egypt could arrive. They were wrong. When the city fell, therefore, it was put to the sack. Many were killed, yet many others were ransomed or allowed to go free.

By modern standards this may seem brutal. Yet a medieval knight would point out that many more innocent men, women, and children are killed in modern bombing warfare than could possibly be put to the sword in one or two days. It is worth noting that in those Muslim cities that surrendered to the Crusaders the people were left unmolested, retained their property, and allowed to worship freely. As for those streets of blood, no historian accepts them as anything other than a literary convention. Jerusalem is a big town. The amount of blood necessary to fill the streets to a continuous and running three-inch depth would require many more people than lived in the region, let alone the city.

Myth 4: The Crusades were just medieval colonialism dressed up in religious finery.

It is important to remember that in the Middle Ages the West was not a powerful, dominant culture venturing into a primitive or backward region. It was the Muslim East that was powerful, wealthy, and opulent. Europe was the third world. The Crusader States, founded in the wake of the First Crusade, were not new plantations of Catholics in a Muslim world akin to the British colonization of America.

Catholic presence in the Crusader States was always tiny, easily less than ten percent of the population. These were the rulers and magistrates, as well as Italian merchants and members of the military orders. The overwhelming majority of the population in the Crusader States was Muslim. They were not colonies, therefore, in the sense of plantations or even factories, as in the case of India. They were outposts.

The ultimate purpose of the Crusader States was to defend the Holy Places in Palestine, especially Jerusalem, and to provide a safe environment for Christian pilgrims to visit those places. There was no mother country with which the Crusader States had an economic relationship, nor did Europeans economically benefit from them.

Quite the contrary, the expense of Crusades to maintain the Latin East was a serious drain on European resources. As an outpost, the Crusader States kept a military focus. While the Muslims warred against each other the Crusader States were safe, but once united the Muslims were able to dismantle the strongholds, capture the cities, and in 1291 expel the Christians completely.

Myth 5: The Crusades were also waged against the Jews.

No pope ever called a Crusade against Jews. During the First Crusade a large band of riffraff, not associated with the main army, descended on the towns of the Rhineland and decided to rob and kill the Jews they found there. In part this was pure greed. In part it also stemmed from the incorrect belief that the Jews, as the crucifiers of Christ, were legitimate targets of the war.

Pope Urban II and subsequent popes strongly condemned these attacks on Jews. Local bishops and other clergy and laity attempted to defend the Jews, although with limited success. Similarly, during the opening phase of the Second Crusade a group of renegades killed many Jews in Germany before St. Bernard was able to catch up to them and put a stop to it.

These misfires of the movement were an unfortunate byproduct of Crusade enthusiasm. But they were not the purpose of the Crusades. To use a modern analogy, during the Second World War some American soldiers committed crimes while overseas. They were arrested and punished for those crimes. But the purpose of the Second World War was not to commit crimes.

Myth 6: The Crusades were so corrupt and vile that they even had a Children’s Crusade.

The so-called "Children’s Crusade" of 1212 was neither a Crusade nor an army of children. It was a particularly large eruption of popular religious enthusiasm in Germany that led some young people, mostly adolescents, to proclaim themselves Crusaders and begin marching to the sea. Along the way they gathered plenty of popular support and not a few brigands, robbers, and beggars as well.

The movement splintered in Italy and finally ended when the Mediterranean failed to dry up for them to cross. Pope Innocent III did not call this "Crusade." Indeed, he repeatedly urged non-combatants to stay at home, helping the war effort through fasting, prayer, and alms. In this case, he praised the zeal of the young who had marched so far, and then told them to go home.

Myth 7: Pope John Paul II apologized for the Crusades.

This is an odd myth, given that the pope was so roundly criticized for failing to apologize directly for the Crusades when he asked forgiveness from all those that Christians had unjustly harmed. It is true that John Paul recently apologized to the Greeks for the Fourth Crusade’s sack of Constantinople in 1204. But the pope at the time, Innocent III, expressed similar regret. That, too, was a tragic misfire that Innocent had done everything he could to avoid.

Myth 8: Muslims, who remember the Crusades vividly, have good reason to hate the West.

Actually, the Muslim world remembers the Crusades about as well as the West–in other words, incorrectly. That should not be surprising. Muslims get their information about the Crusades from the same rotten histories that the West relies on.

The Muslim world used to celebrate the Crusades as a great victory for them. They did, after all, win. But western authors, fretting about the legacy of modern imperialism, have recast the Crusades as wars of aggression and the Muslims as placid sufferers. In so doing they have rescinded centuries of Muslim triumphs, offering in their stead only the consolation of victimhood.

Crusades Myth Footnotes:

[1] Quoted in Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades – A History, Second Edition (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2005), 307.

[2] Quoted in Carole Hillenbrand, “The Legacy of the Crusades”, in Crusades – The Illustrated History, ed. Thomas F. Madden (Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press, 2004), 208.

[3] Karen Armstrong, Holy War:  The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World, 2ndedition (New York: Random House, 2001), xiv.

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  1. The first instance of Islamic violence occurred when Mohamed attacked the Jewish tribes in Arabia in the 7th century and massacred them. After his death, his successors expanded the policy of conquest to Christians and other local religions across the Middle East and Europe. By the time of Charles Martel at Tours in 732, the West was largely reduced to a holding action against the Muslims until the beginning of the crusades. It was a brutal period in human history and must be viewed in the context of that time which was essentially the survival of the Christian religion and their countries.

    1. Absolutely! Thanks for your contributions to the article.