Were the Crusaders Medieval Terrorists?

Beheadings. Torture. Kidnappings. Execution-style murders. Unspeakable acts of barbarism. Rape as a weapon of war.

Today’s headlines are filled with atrocities, many of them associated with radical Islam. For example, my initial reaction is that the masked faces behind ISIS are clearly the “bad guys”and people in the West are the “good guys.” And then something mind boggling like the execution-style murders of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina happens. It can get really confusing.

Examples of violence in history across the religious spectrum are invoked by journalists and political leaders in order to give us perspective. For many, the actions associated with extreme Islamic jihad are comparable to the aggressive militancy of the Crusades waged by Western Europeans in the Middle East during the medieval era. Countless readers of history, both from Christian and Islamic backgrounds, accept the narrative made famous by 20th century medieval historian Sir Steven Runciman that the Crusades remain the classic example of unprovoked, religious intolerance and unbridled fanaticism.

So, is this a fair comparison? Did the offensive actions of those medieval Crusaders provoke modern day extreme Islamic jihad? Or were the Crusades primarily intended to be an act of defense against the juggernaut advance of militant Islam over the preceding centuries?

Let’s face it. History can get really complicated, particularly when talking about violence, especially religiously motivated violence. How do we sort these things out?

Thomas F. Madden is a professor of medieval history at Saint Louis University. He is one of the leading academic historians on the Crusades. Many of the things Madden talks about regarding common misunderstandings of the Crusades may surprise you. Madden gave the following talk before a Catholic audience (here is a summary of his main points):

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

5 responses to “Were the Crusaders Medieval Terrorists?

  • dwwork

    Thanks again for a great article. david

  • dwwork

    Reblogged this on Reasons For The Hope Blog and commented:
    Once again the guys at Veracity take a topic of current interest and dispel the Myths. Please click on the link at the end for a great summary of the myths surrounding the Crusades. Have a blessed day, David

  • John Paine

    I can’t help but think that if the Crusaders and their predecessors had used more appropriate weapons–kindness, compassion, empathy and love–history might be at least a bit different. I think of Christ rebuking Peter in Getsemane for drawing a sword and cutting off the ear of a Roman soldier.

    If you’ve ever been to the Vatican Museum it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by all the plunder taken by the Crusaders. Clearly things went very wrong. I’m no historian, but Madden seems to be exorcising bits of abhorrent history to cast the Crusades in a more positive light. We can’t deny that with the baby came the bath water.

    Jude, the apostle Paul, the apostle John, and Christ himself instructed us to contend for the faith. Yes, radical Islam is evil, and yes we should war against terrorists and their ideologies. But our first call is not to take up our swords, it is to take up our cross…daily (Luke 9:23).

    • Clarke Morledge

      John:

      Your point illustrates the same type of vexing questions raised by movies like American Sniper. In the face of radical Islamists who kill 21 Coptic Christian men, making them martyrs for the cause of Christ, how are Christians to respond?

      I, too, would like to think that there could have been other non-violent alternatives for the Crusaders, and you do find examples of this in folks like Saint Francis of Assisi who crossed the battle line to share his faith in Jesus with the Muslim leaders. But I wonder how I would have responded knowing that my fellow believers were being mercilessly slaughtered on the road to Jerusalem?

      I will never forget sitting in church one Sunday morning in 1983, listening as an elder read a report of terrified missionaries rejoicing and praising God when they heard the sound of American Marine helicopters coming in to liberate them during the Invasion of Grenada. It gave me a different perspective on things about an act of war on behalf of the United States that had been so roundly condemned in the international press. I do not know why, but that moment always sticks in my mind.

      As to the plunder of the Crusades, Madden I find makes an important observation in that the majority of Crusaders sacrificed much of their wealth and property to finance their efforts, traveling hundreds and hundreds of miles away from home under tremendous hardships, with very little if anything in return, other than the promise that their sins might be forgiven, following the Catholic doctrine of penance. There is still much to find appalling in the terrible things done by those claiming to be “Christian.” Following folks like Martin Luther, evangelicals will not agree with the theology and the practical form it took. But it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the dedication and sacrifice of the vast majority of the Crusaders.

      Clarke

  • John Paine

    The Crusades just won’t go away. Here’s an interesting, critical post by Ravi Zacharias that demonstrates the ignorance that still prevails. I can understand Obama wanting to bring peace to a very contentious situation, but it seems that compromise involves compromising the truth.

    http://rzim.org/blog/a-presidential-blunder-my-response-to-obamas-address-at-the-national-prayer-breakfast

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