Fighting for Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades

By Sumption, Jonathan | The Spectator, October 23, 2004 | Go to article overview

Fighting for Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades


Sumption, Jonathan, The Spectator


Mixed mediaeval motives FIGHTING FOR CHRISTENDOM: HOLY WAR AND THE CRUSADES by Christopher Tyerman OUP, £12.99, pp. 216, ISBN 0192803255 * £11.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

The crusades have had a bad press lately, for reasons which are not far to seek. They were characterised by the three things that the modern age has found most abhorrent about its own recent past: religious enthusiasm, racism and colonial settlement. More generally, they were inspired by a belief that there is a divine plan for the world, and that some people have been specially charged with executing it. This belief is not widely accepted today, outside the United States and parts of the Islamic Middle East. The 18th-century sceptic David Hume thought that the crusades were 'the most signal and the most durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation'. Modern Europeans would add that they were wicked as well.

One may wonder why it matters. The crusades, after all, happened more than 500 years ago. Their perpetrators had moral values which were fundamentally different from our own. And anyway they are dead. What is the point of criticising historical events, simply because we would deplore them if they happened now?

There are at least two reasons why it may matter. One is that the modern world believes in collective and inherited guilt. This curious superstition was the basis on which mediaeval Christian societies once justified the persecution of Jews. But how else is one to explain the Pope's recent decision to apologise for religious wars and persecutions wrought by Christians in past centuries? secondly, the crusades have perceived analogies with more recent events in the Middle East, which have transformed them from historical curiosities into modern political slogans. A man's attitude to the 11th-century crusades is one way of telling the 21st century what side he is on.

Christopher Tyerman is the author of an admirable history of the English contribution to the crusades, published in 1988. He has now set out in this short but stimulating book to attack the kind of ahistorical posturing to which these attitudes lead, and to debunk the myths which are implicit in some of them. He offers a brief summary of the historical facts, and a discussion of their implications. The crusades, he argues, were not a colonial movement. They were not driven by land hunger. They were not a form of economic exploitation. They were not only wars against Islam. They have nothing to tell us about the modern world. …

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