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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Barbarian" Crusaders -- A Second Look

Two weeks ago I laid out several of the popular misconceptions about the crusades and made a rebuttal. Today I want to look more closely at the persistent myth that the crusaders were "less civilized" than their Muslim opponents.

The crusaders are widely portrayed as "barbarians" today primarily because they are seen as brutal aggressors against "peace-loving, tolerant, and highly sophisticated" Arab societies in the Middle East. This ignores the fact that the Arabs had taken the Holy Land by the sword, not with sweet words, persuasion, or peaceful tolerance. And that expansion continued far beyond the Holy Land: 

Muslim armies attacked Constantinople 678. In 698 the Christian city of Carthage fell to the sword of Islam. In 713 Corsica was conquered. By 720 the Muslim invasion of Spain was nearly complete. In 732 an invading Muslim army almost reached the Loire before it was crushed by the Franks under Charles Martel and pushed back behind the Pyrenees. In 827 Muslim armies started the conquest of Sicily, and ten years later landed in Italy. In 846 Rome was attacked and St. Peter's sacked by Muslim armies. In 934 Genoa was sacked. In 997 the Muslims sacked Santiago de Compostella, the most important pilgrimage church in the West. In 1009 the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built by the Byzantines in the reign of Constantine the Great (306 – 337), was utterly destroyed.

Meanwhile, however, the Muslims had divided into Shiites and Sunnis and engaged in bloody wars in which they murdered, raped, pillaged and burned rival Muslim cities. Zengi, atabeg of Mosul, for example, according to a Muslim source ordered the “pillaging, slaying, capturing, ravishing and looting” of Edessa, but was feared in Damascus because of “his exceptionally cruel and treacherous behavior” – to his co-religionists. The great “chivalrous” Saladin spent more of his career fighting his fellow Sunni Muslims than he did fighting the Christians.

Attempts to depict the crusaders as illiterate brutes lacking in cultural accomplishments also miss the mark. The “unwashed masses” might not have been very cultivated—but nor were the peasants and common soldiers of the Byzantine Empire or the Turks.  The upper classes in 11th century Europe, on the other hand, had already started to develop arts and architecture to a high degree of sophistication as manuscripts, artifacts and the architectural record shows. Literacy may have been confined to an elite and fostered mostly by the clergy, but the leaders of the crusade themselves were highly educated. (And, by the way, at this time classical Greek scholars had been re-discovered and were being studied in the West.) Furthermore, literacy was not exactly universal in the Byzantine and Muslim worlds either. While it is fair to say that in certain fields (mathematics and astronomy) the Muslim world was more advanced than Western Europe, in other fields (shipbuilding, transportation and agricultural technology), the West was more developed.  As earlier entries have stressed, medicine in the West was on about par with the East, not hopelessly more backward as so often portrayed.

However, two features of Western European feudal society set it apart from the East into which the crusaders came so suddenly and unexpectedly at the end of the 11th century. 

First was the decentralized system of government based on complex, feudal relationships. Both the Byzantine and the Muslim world in this period were intensely hierarchical societies in which the Emperor (in the one) and the Caliph (in the other) theoretically held supreme and absolute control over his subjects. To be sure, reality looked slightly different.  By the end of the tenth century the Syrian Caliphs were virtual prisoners of the Abbasid dynasty, and changed masters when the Seljuk Turks captured Baghdad in 1055.  Thereafter they were puppets of the Selkjuk sultans, while the Fatimid Caliphs were at the mercy of their viziers. 

But whether the theoretically absolute rulers wielded actual power or not, their powerful “protectors” always ruled in their name; they considered – and called themselves – slaves of their masters. Western feudalism, in which kings were little more than the “first among equals,” was utterly alien to the Eastern mentality, and so was the outspokenness and (from the Easter perspective) impudence of vassals. The Eastern elites saw the inherent dangers of such a fluid system and associated it with primitive tribal structures. Yet it was exactly these feudal kingdoms that gradually devolved power to ever wider segments of the population until (through a series of constitutional crises) they eventually developed into modern democracies. Meanwhile, the Eastern states remained mired in autocracy.

The other feature of Western European society that the Muslims (though not the Byzantines) found disgusting and incomprehensible was the presence of women in public life. The fact that women had names and faces that were known outside the family circle was viewed as immoral and dishonorable (much the way the Athenians viewed Spartan women) by the Muslims of the 12th and 13th centuries. The fact that women not only had names and faces, but a voice in civic affairs and could play a role in public life including controlling and bequeathing wealth and influencing politics was even more offensive. Yet modern developmental research shows a strong correlation between societies that empower women and development. Societies that insist on muzzling and oppressing half their population are nowadays considered less “civilized.”


Whether you view the crusaders or the Saracens as more civilized depends on how you view democracy and womens’ rights. And modern commentators who feel compelled to “apologize” for the crusades are either utterly ignorant of the issues at stake and the comparative cultures of the antagonists—or implicitly reject the very Western values they allegedly defend. 

In my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin I endeavor to portray the crusader society as accurately as possible.

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