The Unchristian Crusades

Recent years have shown a considerable and apparently growing interest in the history of the Crusades. Presumably this represents an urge to understand more fully the Near East and to establish the present relations between cultures which call themselves Christian and Moslem on a sounder basis.

The first major work to appear was R. Grousset’s Histoire des Croisades et du Royaume Franc de Jérusalem, three volumes, Paris, 1934-6, and L’Empire du Levant, Paris, 1946. Perhaps Grousset provoked his successors into writing their books. Any nonpartisan would find it almost impossible to believe his eyes as he reads. Even at its highest levels of scholarship it is obvious that French chauvinism has forgotten nothing and learned nothing.

There are many theories and interpretations of the Crusades, but to the best of my knowledge Grousset is the only person in modern times who “believes” in the Crusades themselves. As a chauvinist, he occupies a position considerably to the right of his predecessor, Monsieur Villehardouin — the crusader-historian. When you encounter his first statement about the civilizing effect of the Crusades, you think you have forgotten your French and have subject and object mixed up. But he really means it. These Frankish brigands, illiterate, filthy, thieving, and murderous, brought the clarté of France to the benighted Orient! It is shocking to realize that such dangerous misconceptions are not only loose in the world today, but are held by scholars of renown, who in turn misguide statesmen and soldiers.

The first outbreak of folly after the first World War was the shelling of Damascus. Years ago van Paassen said it was the lead in the dike of international order which brought the deluge. Grousset’s history of the Crusades is a mythical substantiation of the French sphere of influence in the Levant — a historical romance justifying the shelling of Damascus and the extraordinary behavior of the French in Syria in the second World War, as well as, of course, the follies now being enacted in North Africa.

Were I a historian I would certainly have sat down and written a history of the Crusades after reading M. Grousset’s. Possibly that’s what happened. Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades (three volumes, Cambridge University Press, 1954-55) has all the earmarks of a historical classic. It is judicious, even-tempered, exhaustive, and completely informed. Historians are always partisan in some degree. Mr. Runciman, as a citizen of an empire which is voluntarily withdrawing from the Orient and which has had a long history of friendly relations with various Moslem powers, can hardly be said to be pro-Crusade. It is true that he always speaks well of British interventions in the Holy Land, but then the English really do seem to have comported themselves with remarkable sense, tolerance, and chivalry. Again, as an Englishman, he is mildly anti-Papal. You feel that of all the people who played a part in the long and pointless drama, the nation he is most sympathetic with is Byzantium; the individual, the Emperor Alexius Comnenus.

But what makes Mr. Runciman’s history great is style and temper. In writing of the Crusades it is all too easy to raise one’s voice. Runciman never departs from a well-modulated, Cantabridgean tone. This calm may be saturated with irony, but it is never ruffled by it.

To me there is only one flaw in this beautiful example of historical equanimity and that is the treatment of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. It is easy to make the claim that Frederick II was the most civilized Western man between the death of Boethius and the episcopacy of Robert Grosseteste. From his court came Thomas Aquinas, the first sculptors of the Renaissance, and the founders of Italian poetry. He accomplished more in the Holy Land than almost any other potentate and he did this without fighting at all. Runciman seems to dislike him intensely, because he was hardly a pious pilgrim. In fact, he was a cynical atheist. True, he became one of the great Nazi heroes, but so did Bach and Goethe. No one thinks of holding Francis Bacon responsible for the follies of the Baconians. I am really at a loss to understand why the judicious Runciman should lose his temper because Frederick made some cynical remarks to his Moslem hosts during his tour of the Holy Places. I am sure I do not believe, and neither does Mr. Runciman, that Christ was buried on the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or that Mohammed ascended from Jerusalem to Heaven on the back of a hippogriff with the face of a woman. And I do not see why Frederick should be taken to task for sharing our skepticism.

Otherwise the book is a sheer joy to read. Possibly this is due to the fact that although the Crusades were an episode of almost unparalleled hooliganism, they really did not do a terrible lot of damage. Off hand I can think of only one comparable outburst of historically important criminality — the destruction of Peru by Pizarro. But there a great and noble civilization was destroyed in a matter of weeks by a gang of thugs, and the population was given over to murder and slavery for 500 years. The Crusaders did less damage.

The Crusaders were able to penetrate the Holy Land in the first place because they were drawn into a vacuum. The Abbasid Caliphate was in an advanced state of decay. Egypt was independent and unstable. The countryside between Baghdad and Cairo was given over to small, short-lived Turkish principalities. From Damascus to the Red Sea lay an area of little interest to anybody except the religious enthusiasts, thieves, wanted men, and masterless knights whom Europe was delighted to get rid of. If no large numbers of people get badly hurt, there is a certain smug pleasure in reading the story of human stupidity, larcenous folly, and just plain foolishness.

Then again, although Mr. Runciman does not point this out, every movement of troops, from the beginnings in Europe to the pettiest conflicts between Tyre and Ascalon, had in their day not just an ideological justification, but a theological one as well. The Baldwins and Bohemunds of Antioch and Jerusalem never lacked preachers and scholars to justify the bloodthirsty vagaries of their policies. No one today except, slightly, M. Grousset, gives a continental for these justifications, so the record of brigandage stands clear of its ancient vestments. It is a consolation to know that in 500 years, if there are still civilized men on earth, our own capers will be appreciated on their merits and not in terms of their present justifications. This, I suppose, is the most one can learn from a study of the Crusades, because, as Runciman points out, it is not true that they formed an important point of culture contact between East and West. Culture exchange in the late Middle Ages flowed largely through channels kept open by the Italian trading cities, and although the nonagenarian Doge Dondolo allowed the savage horde of Crusaders to sack Constantinople, by and large the merchant princes of Italy looked on the Crusades much as you and I and Frederick II.

On the other side the effects were more serious. The Moslems learned the meaning of the word “crusade” in little more than a generation, and it did not take them long to fight better ones. The Crusade produced the Jihad — the Holy War — and closed the windows which Islam had kept open to the West. From Nur-ed-Din to Jinnah or the present regime in Yemen, Western civilization has paid the penalty for its brief adventure in the Crusades. And Islam has, of course, paid the terrible price in the slow death of its civilization due to rabid xenophobia and religious bigotry.

Furthermore, the Crusades to the Holy Land made possible other “crusades” in Europe. It was one thing to turn a bunch of highwaymen loose in the desert marches between Baghdad and Cairo. It was another thing altogether to turn them loose in the cultural heart of Europe. The Albigensian Crusade was patterned directly on the Eastern ones. It was fought by the same kind of men. But it was fought in the most civilized part of the world west of China, not for religion but for loot, and it destroyed the culture of Provence.

Similarly, there were many to give religious justification to the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade — in other words, to call it “a crusade against the schismatics” — yet this was certainly one of the real disasters of history. To speak in contemporary terms, there is no evidence that Al Capone and his friends made the eating of pizza at midnight suppers popular in America, and there is plenty of evidence that they set a bad example to the youth of the land.

There is just one aspect of Christian-Moslem contact in the period to which Runciman gives pretty short shrift — and that is what might be called the occult tradition as it is perpetrated in the mythology of Freemasonry. If the Templars and others brought back to Europe a secular, rational deism which they had learned from sects like the Assassins, Europe gained. Historians shy away from questions as to the authenticity of the confessions of Jacques de Molay and his companions, but I for one should like to have seen a more extensive discussion of the case. Certainly there are today reputable scholars who believe that there is more in the mythology of Freemasonry than unadulterated myth.

The chapters on the fall of Jerusalem are a real masterpiece comparable to Gibbon’s sonorous and ominous “last gloomy hours of Theodoric.” One of the great dramas of history is the crumbling of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The king, Baldwin the Fourth, was a brave, wise, and slowly dying leper. His vassals were criminal psychopaths. Europe had lost interest in his fate. His opponent was Saladin, the greatest personality to emerge from the whole period. It is the Wasteland, and Grail Castle, and the Fisher King come to life, and Mr. Runciman makes the most of his opportunity with some really noble writing.

Immediately upon the completion of Mr. Runciman’s work, a committee of scholars under the editorship of Kenneth M. Setton started publishing in America A History of the Crusades (five volumes, University of Pennsylvania Press: Volume I: “The First Hundred Years,” $12). One of the principal contributors is Mr. Runciman himself, who handles the narrative section of the First Crusade. There are chapters by all the best authorities. Sir H.A.R. Gibb, for instance, contributes several chapters on the Islamic world of the time, and there are others his equal in scholarship if not in fame. There is, for example, the story of the Turkish invasion and the Selchukid Kingdoms by Claude Cahen — the only thing I have ever read on the subject which was not horribly confusing. It is a gem of lucid historical narrative.

There is a chapter by Bernard Lewis on the Ismailites and the Assassins which is packed with information for Western readers, who by and large know nothing of the difference between Shiite and Sunnite Islam. In fact, this chapter is the best discussion of the more extreme forms of Shiism ever written, and it is exciting to know that Mr. Lewis has in preparation a full book on the subject.

There is only one trouble with a committee history and that is, of course, its impersonality. It is difficult to imagine anyone reading one of the great Cambridge histories with the same pleasure he would get from Froude or H.G. Wells, let along Thucydides or Gibbon. But, like the Cambridge Medieval History, this collection is so full of new information, detailed background, and what are called odd byways, that it would be niggardly to quarrel with it. All the announced volumes promise to be equally interesting, although there is one which I must say I await with some trepidation: Volume IV, “Civilization and Institutions,” is to be edited by Jeremiah O’Sullivan of Fordham University. Harboring a low opinion of the civilization manifested in the Crusades, I have to be convinced that a professor at Fordham University is best qualified to handle such a subject. Anyway, Professor Setton’s committee history is exciting reading — a different and lesser excitement. Mr. Runciman’s history is a classic. The other is a great reference work.



This review of Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades (3 vols., Cambridge University Press, 1955) originally appeared in The Nation (10 September 1955). Copyright 1955. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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