7 Myths About the Crusades

— 1 —

The Crusades were never referred to as such by their participants.

The original crusaders were known by various terms, including fideles Sancti Petri (the faithful of Saint Peter) or milites Christi (knights of Christ). The word “Crusade” is a relatively modern term, from the French croisade and Spanish cruzada. The French form of the word first appears in the L’Histoire des Croisades written by A. de Clermont and published in 1638. It wasn’t until 1750 that the various forms of the word “Crusade” had established themselves in English, French, and German. The origin of the word may be traced to the cross (crux) made of (typically) red cloth and sewn as a badge onto the outer garment of those who took part in these enterprises. This “taking of the cross”, eventually became associated with the entire journey. The crusaders saw themselves as undertaking a journey, or a peregrinate – an armed pilgrimage. Additionally, before the 16th century the words “Muslim” and “Islam” were very rarely used by Europeans. During the Crusades the term widely used for Muslim was Saracen. In Greek and Latin this term had a longer evolution from the beginning of the first millennia where it referred to a people who lived in desert areas around the Roman province of Arabia and who were distinguished from Arabs. The Crusades took place under the direction of the Popes and were all announced by preaching. After pronouncing a solemn vow, each warrior received a cross from the hands of the Pope or his legates, and was thenceforth considered a soldier of the Church. The Crusades were wars undertaken in the name of Christendom, but not primarily for religious reasons.

— 2 —

More wars have been started over religion than for any other reason.

Although this claim is oft repeated, and most often leveled against the Crusades of the Catholic Church, it is patently ridiculous. 20140601-010518-3918751.jpgIn their Encyclopedia of Wars, authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod attempt a comprehensive listing of wars in history. They document 1763 wars overall, of which an astonishingly low 123 (6.98%) have been classified to involve a religious conflict. However, when one subtracts out those waged in the name of Islam (66), the percentage is cut by more than half to 3.23%.1 William T. Cavanaugh in his Myth of Religious Violence (2009) argues that what is termed “religious wars” is a largely “Western dichotomy”, arguing that virtually all wars that are classified as “religious” have secular (economic or political) ramifications.2

— 3 —

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

Again, this is patently ridiculous. Let’s look briefly at just the major Islamic invasions and conquests in the West which proceeded the Crusades:

630 – Muhammad conquers Mecca from his base in Medina.
632 – Muhammad dies in Medina. Islam controls the Hijaz.
636 – Muslims conquest of Syria, and the surrounding lands, all Christian – including Palestine and Iraq.
637 – Muslim Crusaders conquer Iraq (some date it in 635 or 636)
638 – Muslim Crusaders conquer and annex Jerusalem, taking it from the Byzantines.
638 – 650 Muslim Crusaders conquer Iran, except along Caspian Sea.
639 – 642 Muslim Crusaders conquer Egypt.
641 – Muslim Crusaders control Syria and Palestine.
643 – 707 Muslim Crusaders conquer North Africa.
644 – 650 Muslim Crusaders conquer Cyprus, Tripoli in North Africa, and establish Islamic rule in Iran, Afghanistan, and Sind.
673 – 678 Arabs besiege Constantinople, capital of Byzantine Empire
691 – Dome of the Rock is completed in Jerusalem, only six decades after Muhammad’s death.
710 – 713 Muslim Crusaders conquer the lower Indus Valley.
711 – 713 Muslim Crusaders conquer Spain and impose the kingdom of Andalus. The Muslim conquest moves into Europe.
718 – Conquest of Spain complete.
732 – Muslim invasion of France is stopped at the Battle of Poitiers / Battle of Tours. The Franks, under their leader Charles Martel (the grandfather of Charlemagne), defeat the Muslims and turn them back out of France.
762 – Foundation of Baghdad
785 – Foundation of the Great Mosque of Cordova
789 – Rise of Idrisid amirs (Muslim Crusaders) in Morocco; Christoforos, a Muslim who converted to Christianity, is executed.
800 – Autonomous Aghlabid dynasty (Muslim Crusaders) in Tunisia
807 – Caliph Harun al—Rashid orders the destruction of non-Muslim prayer houses & of the church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem
809 – Aghlabids (Muslim Crusaders) conquer Sardinia, Italy
813 – Christians in Palestine are attacked; many flee the country
831 – Muslim Crusaders capture Palermo, Italy; raids in Southern Italy
837 – 901 Aghlabids (Muslim Crusaders) conquer Sicily, raid Corsica, Italy, France
869 – 883 Revolt of black slaves in Iraq
909 – Rise of the Fatimid Caliphate in Tunisia; these Muslim Crusaders occupy Sicily, Sardinia
928 – 969 Byzantine military revival, they retake old territories, such as Cyprus (964) and Tarsus (969)
937 – The Church of the Resurrection (aka Church of Holy Sepulcher) is burned down by Muslims; more churches in Jerusalem are attacked
960 – Conversion of Qarakhanid Turks to Islam 969 – Fatimids (Muslim Crusaders) conquer Egypt and found Cairo
973 – Israel and southern Syria are again conquered by the Fatimids
1003 – First persecutions by al—Hakim; the Church of St. Mark in Fustat, Egypt, is destroyed
1009 – Destruction of the Church of the Resurrection by al—Hakim (see 937)
1012 – Beginning of al—Hakim’s oppressive decrees against Jews and Christians
1050 – Creation of Almoravid (Muslim Crusaders) movement in Mauretania; Almoravids (aka Murabitun) are coalition of western Saharan Berbers; followers of Islam, focusing on the Quran, the hadith, and Maliki law.
1071 – Battle of Manzikert, Seljuk Turks (Muslim Crusaders) defeat Byzantines and occupy much of Anatolia 1071 – Turks (Muslim Crusaders) invade Palestine
1073 – Conquest of Jerusalem by Turks (Muslim Crusaders)
1075 – Seljuks (Muslim Crusaders) capture Nicea (Iznik) and make it their capital in Anatolia
1076 – Almoravids (Muslim Crusaders) (see 1050) conquer western Ghana
1086 – Almoravids (Muslim Crusaders) (see 1050) send help to Andalus, Battle of Zallaca
1090 – 1091 Almoravids (Muslim Crusaders) occupy all of Andalus except Saragossa and Balearic Islands

1094 – Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus I asks western Christendom for help against Seljuk (Muslim Turks) invasions of his territory
1095 – Pope Urban II preaches first Crusade; they capture Jerusalem in 1099

In other words, by the end of the eleventh century the forces of Islam had captured fully two-thirds of the Christian world. And these were not merely areas at the periphery of the Christian world, but rather places which represented the very origin of the Christian communities – their heart and soul. Palestine, the home of Jesus Christ, where He was born, conducted His ministry, died and was resurrected; Egypt, the birthplace of Christian monasticism and home to countless Saints and theologians such as St. Anthony, St. Cyprian and St. Augustine; Asia Minor, where St. Paul planted the seeds of the first Christian communities.

“Far from being unprovoked, then, the Crusades actually represent the first great western Christian counterattack against the Muslim attacks which had taken place continually from the inception of Islam until the eleventh century, and which continued on thereafter, mostly unabated. Three of Christianity’s five primary episcopal sees (Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria) had been captured in the seventh century; both of the others (Rome and Constantinople) had been attacked in the centuries before the crusades. The latter would be captured in 1453, leaving only one of the five (Rome) in Christian hands by 1500.”3 At some point what was left of the Christian world would have to defend itself or simply succumb to Islamic conquest. St. Augustine has articulated a Christian approach to the concept of just war, one in which legitimate authorities could use violence to halt or avert a greater evil. It must be a defensive war, in reaction to an act of aggression. For Christians, therefore, violence was ethically neutral, since it could be employed either for evil or against it. When 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, it was Urban calling 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. The Crusades all met the criteria for just wars, and it is largely due to this defense of Christendom and the Western world that you and I don’t speak Aramaic today and require our women to wear burqas 😉

— 4 —

Christians attacked Muslims without provocation to seize their lands and forcibly convert them.

We’ve already dealt with the unprovoked assertion above, but some will respond that the Crusades rather than being defensive and just wars, were instead wars of retaliation and revenge. That the goal of the crusaders was to seize Muslim lands and forcibly convert them. To put the question in perspective, one need only consider how many times Christian forces have attacked either Mecca or Medina. The answer, of course, is never. It has however become common practice to equate the forcible conversions of the Islamic conquests with the Catholic Crusades, as if to suggest that there is a similarity between the coerced conversions of Islam and the activities of the crusaders. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evidence overwhelmingly suggests that none of the Christian military orders fighting the Muslims sought to impose baptism by force. Certainly, the crusaders did not object to using military force to establish conditions conducive to the peaceful conversion of Muslims, but that is a different matter altogether.

We can see an example of how military conquest created the conditions conducive to peaceful conversion in an anonymous pamphlet from 1260 entitled De constructione castri Saphet, which argued that the building of a castle in conquered Muslim territory meant that “the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ can be preached freely in all the aforesaid places [in the region of Safed] and the blasphemy of Muhammad can be publicly refuted and demolished in sermons.”4 A perfect example of this is Pope Alexander III ’ s confirmation of the Order of Santiago, issued in 1175, which contains the injunction: “in their warfare they should devote themselves to this objective alone, namely either to protect Christians from their [the Saracens ’] attacks or to be in a position to induce them [the Saracens] to follow the Christian faith.”5 The latter clause, “be in a position to induce them to follow the Christian faith”, does not refer to forcible conversion, but rather an ideal situation in which Christian military dominance paves the way for peaceable evangelization by Christian missionaries. In contrast, the Islamic religion has always been advanced at the point of a sword. “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.”6 Those who are conquered are given a simple choice. For those who are not People of the Book — in other words, those who are not Christians or Jews — the choice is convert to Islam or die. For those who are People of the Book, the choice is submit to Muslim rule and Islamic law or die. The expansion of Islam, therefore, was always directly linked to the military successes of jihad.

The Crusades however, were something very different. From its beginnings Christianity has always forbidden coerced conversion of any kind. Conversion by the sword, therefore, was not possible for Christianity. Unlike jihad, the purpose of the Crusades was neither to expand the Christian world nor to expand Christianity through forced conversions. In a nutshell, therefore, the major difference between Crusade and jihad is that the former was a defense against the latter, not an attempt to seize Muslim lands or acquire new converts.

— 5 —

The Crusaders were motivated by greed and the pursuit of Muslim lands and fortunes.

We’ve already dealt with the myth of Crusaders seeking to acquire Muslim lands, but during the past two decades, computer-assisted charter studies have verified that crusading knights were indeed generally wealthy men with plenty of their own land in Europe. Nevertheless, they willingly gave up everything to undertake the holy mission. Crusading was not cheap; even wealthy lords could easily impoverish themselves and their families by joining a Crusade.

“As Fred Cazel has noted, “Few crusaders had sufficient cash both to pay their obligations at home and to support themselves decently on a crusade.”7 From the very beginning, financial considerations played a major role in crusade planning. The early crusaders sold off so many of their possessions to finance their expeditions that they caused widespread inflation. Although later crusaders took this into account and began saving money long before they set out, the expense was still nearly prohibitive.”8

So why did these crusaders set out on these “armed pilgrimages?” Largely due to sermons which were preached in order to convince the crusaders to participate in these ventures. Crusade sermons were replete with warnings that crusading brought deprivation, suffering, and often death. As Jonathan Riley-Smith has noted, crusade preachers “had to persuade their listeners to commit themselves to enterprises that would disrupt their lives, possibly impoverish and even kill or maim them, and inconvenience their families, the support of which they would . . . need if they were to fulfill their promises.”9 The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam (Bampton Lectures in America)
In other words, they did so not because they expected to gain material wealth (which many of them already had), but because they hoped to store up treasure where rust and moth could not corrupt. They were keenly aware of their sinfulness and eager to undertake the hardships of the Crusade as a penitential act of charity and love. Far from being a materialistic enterprise, crusading was impractical in worldly terms, but valuable for one’s soul. I won’t take time here to explore the doctrine of penance as it developed in late antiquity and the medieval world, but suffice it to say that the willing acceptance of difficulty and suffering was viewed (and still is, in Catholic doctrine today) as a useful way to purify one’s soul.

Europe is littered with literally thousands of medieval charters attesting to these sentiments – charters in which these men still speak to us today if we are willing to listen. Of course, they were not opposed to capturing plunder if it could be had. But the truth is that the Crusades were notoriously bad for plunder. A few people got rich, but the vast majority returned with nothing. “Crusading,” as Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith has rightly argued, was also understood as an “an act of love”—in this case, the love of one’s neighbor. The Crusade was seen as an errand of mercy to right a terrible wrong. As Pope Innocent III wrote to the Knights Templar, “You carry out in deeds the words of the Gospel, ‘Greater love than this hath no man, that he lay down his life for his friends.'”

Despite the fact that money did not yet play a major role in Western European economies in the eleventh century, there was “a heavy and persistent flow of money” from West to East as a result of the Crusades, and the financial demands of crusading caused “profound economic and monetary changes in both western Europe and the Levant.”10 In short: very few people became rich by crusading, and their numbers were dwarfed by those who were bankrupted.

— 6 —

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.

So, let’s be clear. Atrocities were committed during the Crusades. The Crusades were wars, and as the old saying goes, “War is hell.” But, let’s also be clear.  The above quote is pure hyperbole. No historian accepts it as anything other than literary convention. Jerusalem is a big town, and the amount of blood necessary to fill the streets to a continuous and running three-inch depth would require many, many more people than those which lived in the region, let alone the city. Also, the cities 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 from 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. It is worth noting that in those Muslim cities that surrendered to the crusaders the people were left unmolested, retained their property and were allowed to worship freely.

But, atrocities were committed. Let’s face it, mistakes were going to be made. Have you ever known of a war where they weren’t? How about seven wars over almost two hundred years? Of course there were things done which were reprehensible.  But what is really shocking is just how relatively few horrific incidents can be pointed to over such a lengthy time frame involving multiple wars. However, in the interest of fairness here are a couple of prime examples.

  • 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.
  • The Fourth Crusade (1202–1204) was originally intended to conquer Muslim-controlled Jerusalem by means of an invasion through Egypt. Instead, in April 1204, the Crusaders of Western Europe invaded and sacked the Orthodox Christian city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. This is seen as one of the final acts in the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church, and a key turning point in the decline of the empire and of Christianity in the Near East, leaving Pope Innocent III to lament, “How, indeed, will the church of the Greeks, no matter how severely she is beset with afflictions and persecutions, return into ecclesiastical union and to a devotion for the Apostolic See, when she has seen in the Latins only an example of perdition and the works of darkness, so that she now, and with reason, detests the Latins more than dogs? As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood, they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex. They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of men. They have exposed both matrons and virgins, even those dedicated to God, to the sordid lusts of boys. Not satisfied with breaking open the imperial treasury and plundering the goods of princes and lesser men, they also laid their hands on the treasures of the churches and, what is more serious, on their very possessions. They have even ripped silver plates from the altars and have hacked them to pieces among themselves. They violated the holy places and have carried off crosses and relics.”11

These relatively isolated incidents were universally condemned by the Popes and the Catholic Church and they should not be confused with the initial reasons for the Crusades – in the same way that individual atrocities committed by a small number of World War II soldiers didn’t change the necessary reasons for which the United States went to war in the first place.


— 7 —

Saint Pope John Paul II apologized for the Crusades.

John Paul II never actually apologized for the Crusades. The closest he came was on March 12, 2000, the “Day of Pardon.” During his homily he said: “We cannot fail to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially during the second millennium. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken toward the followers of other religions.” It is true that John Paul apologized to the Greeks for the Fourth Crusade’s sack of Constantinople in 1204, but even the Pope of that time, Innocent III, expressed similar regret as we have seen above.

You may also be interested in reading my post 7 Myths about the Inquisition

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  1. Axelrod, Alan & Phillips, Charles Encyclopedia of Wars, Facts on File, November 2004, ISBN 978-0-8160-2851-1. Deem, Richard. Are Most Wars the Result of Religious Belief?, March 28, 2008 

  2. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, W. Cavanaugh, Oxford University Press, 2009. 

  3. Intercollegiate Review SPRING 2011 – VOL 46, NO 1, Paul Crawford 

  4. R.B.C. Huygens, ‘ Un nouveau texte du traite ´‘ De constructione castri Saphet ’’ , Studi medievali , 6 (1965), 386. 

  5. Martin 248-254 

  6. The Muqaddimah: an Introduction to History (abridged), trans. Franz Rosenthal, Princeton UP, 1967, p.183 

  7. Fred Cazel, “Financing the Crusades,” in A History of the Crusades, ed. Kenneth Setton, vol. 6 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 117. 

  8. Intercollegiate Review SPRING 2011 – VOL 46, NO 1, Paul Crawford 

  9. Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 36. 

  10. John Porteous, “Crusade Coinage with Greek or Latin Inscriptions,” in A History of the Crusades, 354. 

  11. Pope Innocent III, Letters, 126 (given July 12, 1205, and addressed to the papal legate, who had absolved the crusaders from their pilgrimage vows). Text taken from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook by Paul Halsall. Modified. Original translation by J. Brundage. 

  10 comments for “7 Myths About the Crusades

  1. June 6, 2014 at 6:01 AM

    This post makes me think I need to add the Crusades to my list of topics to read about in more depth.

    • Adam N. Crawford
      June 6, 2014 at 7:27 AM

      Kathleen, I feel the same way! I was first exposed to some of these myths by an Anglican Dr. at a conference that I was attending in Vancouver, BC. While delivering a lecture on ethics in medicine he made the offhanded comment that, “Of course the ‘Dark Ages’ weren’t really dark at all…” I also would like to delve more deeply into the Crusades and some of the myths surrounding the various Inquisitions.

  2. JMR
    June 13, 2014 at 8:20 AM

    I agree…I have much more to add to my reading list. This was fascinating; thank you for researching and writing.

    • Adam N. Crawford
      June 13, 2014 at 10:14 AM

      Thanks JMR – glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Paul F. Crawford
    November 22, 2015 at 1:13 PM

    Good page, and good points. Since you are quoting my article “Four Myths about the Crusades” verbatim, however, you might want to cite the actual article:


    • Adam N. Crawford
      November 22, 2015 at 2:36 PM

      Paul – thanks for the catch, please accept my apologies. I believe that I located two spots in the article that needed citations added and provided footnotes citing your article for both – let me know if I’m missing anything else and I’ll fix it. I try and provide good footnotes and cite all appropriate sources, but I obviously dropped the ball here. I’m extremely sorry – thanks for bringing it to my attention!

      • Paul F. Crawford
        November 22, 2015 at 2:45 PM

        No problem. It’s hard to catch them all. At least you’re fixing it!–unlike a Christendom College professor who I won’t name but who basically lifted and re-published the whole article without attribution. :/ I was kind of…disappointed in him.

        You can probably see my email from my registration–feel free to contact me by email if you would like to stay in touch.

        And keep up the battle–these are things that need saying over and over again, it seems.

        All the best!

        • Adam N. Crawford
          November 22, 2015 at 3:32 PM

          Thanks again Paul!

I want to hear your thoughts! Go ahead and keep the conversation going, but please keep it at least PG and respectful.

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