Walter Scott, The Talisman, the Crusades, Richard I of England and Saladin: Myths, Legends and History
by Ibn Warraq
Parts 1-39 / Part 40 / Part 41 / Part 42 / Part 43 / Part 44 / Part 45 / Part 46 / Part 47
In fact, I believe Gibbon’s position on the Crusades was far more subtle than hitherto acknowledged. Many historians writing one-volume accounts of the Crusades, in their conclusions, tend only to quote Gibbon’s comments from Chapter LXI of his Decline and Fall. But we need to go back to Chapter XIX to have a fuller picture. Here are some of Gibbon’s views from Ch. XIX .
Man, according to Gibbon, is naturally violent, and we are ready to grant the slightest provocation as sufficient cause for war. But we cannot be so indulgent when it comes to holy war — we cannot believe that Jesus would allow fighting unless the motive were pure. We must be sure of the justice of our enterprise. Gibbon does allow that there was some justification for the Crusades, though he believes that the Koran preaches, and the Muslims, in fact, practice, tolerance. And yet, at the same time, Gibbon acknowledges that the Christians were under an “iron yoke”, and the Turks posed a serious threat to Christendom:
“In the age of the crusades, the Christians, both of the East and West, were persuaded of their lawfulness and merit; their arguments are clouded by the perpetual abuse of Scripture and rhetoric; but they seem to insist on the right of natural and religious defence, their peculiar title to the Holy Land, and the impiety of their Pagan and Mahometan foes. The right of a just defence may fairly include our civil and spiritual allies: it depends on the existence of danger; and that danger must be estimated by the twofold consideration of the malice, and the power, of our enemies. A pernicious tenet has been imputed to the Mahometans, the duty of extirpating all other religions by the sword. This charge of ignorance and bigotry is refuted by the Koran, by the history of the Mussulman conquerors, and by their public and legal toleration of the Christian worship. But it cannot be denied, that the Oriental churches are depressed under their iron yoke; that, in peace and war, they asserted a divine and indefeasible claim of universal empire; and that, in their orthodox creed, the unbelieving nations are continually threatened with the loss of religion or liberty. In the eleventh century, the victorious arms of the Turks presented a real and urgent apprehension of these losses. They had subdued in less than thirty years the kingdoms of Asia, as far as Jerusalem and the Hellespont; and the Greek empire tottered on the verge of destruction. Besides an honest sympathy for their brethren, the Latins had a right and interest in the support of Constantinople, the most important barrier of the West; and the privilege of defence must reach to prevent, as well as to repel, an impending assault.”
But this just purpose could have been accomplished with less waste, and without sacrificing moral precepts:
“But this salutary purpose might have been accomplished by a moderate succour; and our calmer reason might disclaim the innumerable hosts and remote operations, which overwhelmed Asia and depopulated Europe. Palestine could add nothing to the strength or safety of the Latins; and fanaticism alone could pretend to justify the conquest of that distant and narrow province. The Christians affirmed that their inalienable title to the promised land had been sealed by the blood of their divine Saviour: it was their right and duty to rescue their inheritance from the unjust possessors, who profaned his sepulchre, and oppressed the pilgrimage of his disciples. Vainly would it be alleged that the pre-eminence of Jerusalem, and the sanctity of Palestine have been abolished with the Mosaic law; that the God of the Christians is not a local deity, and that the recovery of Bethlem or Calvary, his cradle or his tomb, will not atone for the violation of the moral precepts of the gospel. Such arguments glance aside from the leaden shield of superstition; and the religious mind will not easily relinquish its hold- on the sacred ground of mystery and miracle. But the holy wars which have been waged in every climate of the globe, from Egypt to Livonia, and from Peru to Hindostan, require the support of some more general and flexible tenet. It has been often supposed, and sometimes affirmed, that a difference of religion is a worthy cause of hostility; that obstinate unbelievers may be slain or subdued by the champions of the cross; and that grace is the sole fountain of dominion as well as of mercy. Above four hundred years before the first crusade, the eastern and western provinces of the Roman empire had been acquired about the same time, and in the same manner, by the Barbarians of Germany and Arabia. Time and treaties had legitimated the conquests of the Christian Franks; but in the eyes of their subjects and neighbours, the Mahometan princes were still tyrants and usurpers, who, by the arms of war or rebellion, might be lawfully driven from their unlawful possession.”
Gibbon is well aware of the importance of the absolution of their sins in the motivation of many common crusaders:
“The merit of military service against the Saracens of Africa and Spain, had been allowed by the predecessors of Urban the second. In the council of Clermont, that pope proclaimed a plenary indulgence to those who should enlist under the banner of the cross; the absolution of all their sins, and a full receipt for all that might be due of canonical penance. The cold philosophy of modern times is incapable of feeling the impression that was made on a sinful and fanatic world. At the voice of their pastor, the robber, the incendiary, the homicide, arose by thousands to redeem their souls, by repeating on the infidels the same deeds which they had exercised against their Christian brethren; and the terms of atonement were eagerly embraced by offenders of every rank and denomination. None were pure ; none were exempt from the guilt and penalty of sin ; and those who were the least amenable to the justice of God and the church, were the best entitled to the temporal and eternal recompence of their pious courage. If they fell, the spirit of the Latin clergy did not hesitate to adorn their tomb with the crown of martyrdom; and should they survive, they could expect without impatience the delay and increase of their heavenly reward. They offered their blood to the Son of God, who had laid down his life for their salvation: they took up the cross, and entered with confidence into the way of the Lord. His providence would watch over their safety; perhaps his visible and miraculous power would smooth the difficulties of their holy enterprise. The cloud and pillar of Jehovah had marched before the Israelites into the promised land. Might not the Christians more reasonably hope that the rivers would open for their passage ; that the walls of the strongest cities would fall at the sound of their trumpets ; and that the sun would be arrested in his mid-career, to allow them time for the destruction of the infidels?”
 Gibbon’s views of the Crusades are conveniently gathered together in The Life and Letters of Edward Gibbon With His History of the Crusades. London & New York: Frederick Warne and Company, 1889. All the following quotes are taken from this collection, pp. 368-373.
To be continued.