Ibn Warraq: Walter Scott, The Talisman, the Crusades, Richard I of England and Saladin: Myths, Legends and History (Part 50)

Walter Scott, The Talisman, the Crusades, Richard I of England and Saladin: Myths, Legends and History
by Ibn Warraq
Part 50
Parts 1-39 / Part 40 / Part 41 / Part 42 / Part 43 / Part 44 / Part 45 / Part 46 / Part 47 / Part 48 / Part 49

“…They merely endeavored to interest Charlemagne in their favour; for neither the conquest of Spain, the invasion of France, the pillage of Greece and the two Sicilies, nor the entire subjugation of Africa, could for near eight centuries rouse the Christians to arms. If at last the shrieks of numberless victims slaughtered in the East; if the progress of the barbarians, who had already reached the gates of Constantinople, awakened Christendom, and impelled it to rise in its own defence, who can say that the cause of the holy wars was unjust? Contemplate Greece, if you would know the fate of a people subjected to the Muslim yoke. Would those, who at this day so loudly exult in the progress of knowledge, wish to live under a religion which burned the Alexandrian library, and which makes a merit of trampling mankind under foot, and holding literature and the arts in sovereign contempt.

“The Crusades, by weakening the Muslim hordes in the very center of Asia, prevented our falling prey to the Turks and Arabs: they did more, they saved us from our own revolutions; they suspended, by the peace of God, our intestine wars; and opened an outlet to that excess of population, which sooner or later occasion the ruin of states.

“With regard to the other results of the Crusades, people begin to admit that these military enterprise were favourable to the progress of science and civilization. Robertson has admirably discussed this subject in his Historical Disquisition concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India. I shall add, that in this estimate we must not omit the renown gained by the European arms in these distant expeditions.The time of these expeditions is the heroic period of our history, the period which gave birth to the epic poetry. Whatever diffuses a tinge of the marvellous over a nation, ought not to be despised by that very nation. In vain should we attempt to deny that there is something implanted in our hearts which excites in us a love of glory: man is not absolutely made of positive calculations of profit and loss; it would be debasing him too much to suppose so. It was by impressing upon the Romans the eternity of their city, that their chiefs led them on to the conquest of the world, and spurred them forward to achievements which have gained them everlasting renown.” [1]

Rodney Stark admirably sums up some of the modern wrong-headed interpretations of the Crusades: ” During the twentieth century, this self-interest thesis [of Gibbon and Mosheim] was developed into an elaborate “materialist” account of why the Crusades took place. The prolific Geoffrey Barraclough (1908–1984) wrote: “[O]ur verdict on the Crusades [is that it amounted to] colonial exploitation.” Or, as Karen Armstrong confided, these “were our first colonies.” A more extensive and sophisticated material explanation of why the knights went east was formulated by Hans Eberhard Mayer, who proposed that the Crusades alleviated a severe financial squeeze on Europe’s “knightly class.” According to Mayer and others who share his views, at this time there was a substantial and rapidly growing number of “surplus” sons, members of noble families who would not inherit and whom the heirs found it increasingly diffi cult to provide with even modest incomes. Hence, as Mayer put it, “˜the Crusade acted as a kind of safety valve for the knightly class . . . a class which looked upon the Crusade as a way of solving its material problems.” Indeed, a group of American economists recently proposed that the crusaders hoped to get rich from the fl ow of pilgrims (comparing the shrines in Jerusalem with modern amusement parks) and that the pope sent the crusaders east in pursuit of “new markets” for the church, presumably to be gained by converting people away from Islam. It is thus no surprise that a leading college textbook on Western civilization informs students: “˜From the perspective of the pope and European monarchs, the crusades offered a way to rid Europe of contentious young nobles . . . [who] saw an opportunity to gain territory, riches, status, possibly a title, and even salvation.” ”

Sir Steven Runciman’s elegantly written three-volume history held the field for many decades from 1950s onwards, and his summing up of the Crusades was very influential [2]:

“Seen in the perspective of history the whole Crusading movement was a vast fiasco”¦.[T]he tenuous kingdom of Jerusalem and its sister principalities were a puny outcome from so much energy and enthusiasm”¦.One of Pope Urban’s expressed aims in preaching the Crusades was to find some useful work for the turbulent and bellicose barons who otherwise spent their energy on civil wars at home; “¦[T]he chief benefit obtained by Western Christendom from the Crusades was negative”¦.Even more harmful was the effect of the Holy War on the spirit of Islam. Any religion that is based on an exclusive Revelation is bound to show some contempt for the unbeliever. But Islam was not intolerant in its early days. Mahomet himself considered that Jews and Christians had received a partial revelation and were therefore not to be persecuted. “¦The Holy War begun by the Franks ruined [the] good realtions [between Christians and Muslims]. The savage intolerance shown by the Crusaders was answered by growing intolerance amongst the Moslems. The broad humanity of Saladin and his family was soon to be rare amongst their fellow-believers. By the time of the Mameluks, the Moslems were as narrow as the Franks”¦.The harm done by the Crusades to Islam was small in comparison with that done by them to Eastern Christendom”¦.[T]he destruction of Byzantium [by the Crusaders] was the result of deliberate malice. [The] greed and[ the]clumsiness [of the Crusaders] led them to indulge in irreparable destruction”¦.It was the Crusaders themselves who wilfully broke down the defence of Christendom and this allowed the infidel to cross the Straits and penetrate into the heart of Europe”¦The chief motive that impelled the Christian armies eastward was faith”¦This genuine faith was often combined with unashamed greed”¦.There was so much courage and so little honour, so much devotion and so little understanding. High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a sin against the Holy Ghost.”

Rodney Stark sums up the prevailing wisdom: “during the Crusades, an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam.” Stark then argues that this was “Not so. As will be seen, the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations: by centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places. Although the Crusades were initiated by a plea from the pope, this had nothing to do with hopes of converting Islam. Nor were the Crusades organized and led by surplus sons, but by the heads of great families who were fully aware that the costs of crusading would far exceed the very modest material rewards that could be expected; most went at immense personal cost, some of them knowingly bankrupting themselves to go. Moreover, the crusader kingdoms that they established in the Holy Land, and that stood for nearly two centuries, were not colonies sustained by local exactions; rather, they required immense subsidies from Europe. In addition, it is utterly unreasonable to impose modern notions about proper military conduct on medieval warfare; both Christians and Muslims observed quite different rules of war. Unfortunately, even many of the most sympathetic and otherwise sensible historians of the Crusades are unable to accept that fact and are given to agonizing over the very idea that war can ever be “just”, revealing the pacifism that has become so widespread among academics. Finally, claims that Muslims have been harboring bitter resentments about the Crusades for a millennium are nonsense: Muslim antagonism about the Crusades did not appear until about 1900, in reaction against the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of actual European colonialism in the Middle East. And anti-crusader feelings did not become intense until after the founding of the state of Israel.” [3]

[1] F.A. de Chateaubriand. Travels in Greece, Palestine, Egypt, and Barbary During the Years 1806 and 1807 Trans, by F. Shoberl, New York: Van Winkle and Wiley, 1814. pp.315-316; French edn.: Chateaubriand. Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem, ed. Jean-Claude Berchet, Paris: Folio Classique, p. 371-373.
[2] Steven Runciman. A History Of the Crusades, Vol.III The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951, pp. 469-480.
[3] Rodney Stark. God’s Battalions. The Case for the Crusades. New York: Harper One, 2009, pp.6-9.

To be continued.

Ibn Warraq is the author of numerous books, including Why the West Is Best and Why I Am Not A Muslim.

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  1. says

    The story of the Muslims destroying the library of Alexandria, repeated, with some scepticism, by Gibbon, and mentioned here by Chateaubriand, is not now regarded as factual by most scholars, including Bernard Lewis.

  2. says

    Excellent piece.

    While it is easy to see the Crusades as a failure, I *do* believe that they checked the inroads Islam made into Europe, and must be seen of a piece with other European resistance of Islam”at the Battle of Tours, at the Battle of Lepanto, at the Gates of Vienna”and turning back Islamic conquest in Spain, in Portugal, in Sicily and southern Italy, in Greece, and in the Balkans.