Why the Crusades Still Matter: Two Scholars Discuss a Historic Flashpoint and Its Relevance Today

National Catholic Reporter, February 24, 2006 | Go to article overview

Why the Crusades Still Matter: Two Scholars Discuss a Historic Flashpoint and Its Relevance Today


NCR's Antonia Ryan conducted an e-mail exchange with two scholars of the Crusades--one who writes about Christian perspectives and one who studies the Muslim experience of these medieval wars. Thomas Madden is the author of The New Concise History of the Crusades (2005) and is a professor and chair of the history department at St. Louis University. Carole Hillenbrand, author of The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (2000), is professor of Islamic culture at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and winner of the King Faisal Foundation prize for Islamic studies.

NCR: The Crusades began in 1095. More than 900 years later, is there any reason we should care about them today?

Madden: Of course. The Crusades were a product of the medieval world, a world that fundamentally shaped the one we live in today.

Hillenbrand: History repeats itself, and we would do well to heed its lessons so as not to commit the same errors as our ancestors:

Together Thomas and I highlight a number of important aspects of the Crusades, but neither of us thinks that what we have written constitutes anything approaching the complete historical picture. Other dimensions have to be included. Here I would stress in particular the viewpoints of other Christians--Orthodox and Middle Eastern Armenians, Monophysites, Melkites and others who have kept the faith for over a thousand years in a heavily Muslim society--and the Jews.

What's the popular perception of the Crusades in both Christian and Muslim minds today? Do the Crusades still have an effect on the wars we're fighting now?

Madden: In the West there are two popular perceptions, one born in the 18th century and the other in the 19th. The first, which gained currency during the Enlightenment, was that the Crusades were a series of unnecessary wars in which a barbaric people steeped in ignorance and superstition attacked a peaceful and sophisticated Muslim world. The Crusades, therefore, were seen as a black mark on the history of Western civilization in general and the Catholic church in particular. This view is still very popular, although it is usually glossed with the assertion that the Crusades were a form of proto-colonialism--the West's first attempt to subjugate the world.

The other popular perception grew out of 19th-century Romanticism. This view sees the Crusades as noble wars led by larger-than-life men motivated by honor and chivalry. Religion and the church are usually airbrushed out of this perception, leaving behind only courageous and selfless knights fighting for righteousness in far-away lands. This perception was particularly popular among colonial powers in the 19th century, but it has waned in the 20th and 21st centuries. Still, it hangs on. Run a Nexis search and see how often the word "crusade" is used to mean a noble and praiseworthy pursuit and "crusader" is used to mean a selfless and courageous individual.

Hillenbrand: As a European raised in a Christian environment, I can say that many Christians in Europe today believe that the Crusades, and especially the First Crusade, were indeed religiously inspired wars. In their view, those who took up the cross believed the pope's promise that salvation would be theirs if they rescued the holy places from the infidel. Other contemporary Christians in Europe are more skeptical and they think that the crusading enterprise was flawed by human ambition and greed.

On the Muslim side there is a similar broad spectrum of attitudes toward the Crusades, although it has to be said that this subject, with its roots in Europe and Christianity, has not been of great interest to Muslim scholars up until now: Those Muslims who do write about the Crusades nowadays do so with a modern political agenda. Such Muslims are "jihadists" and politicians, such as Sayyid Qutb and Osama bin Laden, who see the Crusades as Christian Europe's first attempts to "colonize" and "pollute" the Islamic world. …

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