Medieval Christians

As one who has spent much of the last 12 months reading, researching, and writing about medieval Christians, and growing very fond of them in the process, I feel compelled in this moment to respond to some of the buzz being perpetuated by the President’s remarks concerning the Crusades. On the one hand this is thrilling. It’s not everyday that the topic you’re reading about for a medieval history class at college gets front page press. Secondarily, most of what I am hearing or reading from others about the Crusades and the medieval church is quite alarming and needs to be publicly dismantled.

Two of the not so hot ideas being tossed around:

1. Jihad is Islam’s response to the Crusades

Ehhh, not so much. The idea of “holy war” and militarizing of the Islamic faith existed quite early for Islam. Muhammad claimed to have received revelation from God through the angel Gabriel beginning in 610 CE, and happening sporadically thereafter until his death in 632 CE. These revelations would later be called the Qur’an, and become the primary holy text for Muslims. In the years after Muhammad’s death, the Islamic Caliphate (which was theoretically the theocratic government through which Allah could govern the Islamic community) began its slow spread outward from the Arabian Peninsula and into Persian, Byzantine, and some African territories. Most of the early violence of Islam was commited against the polytheist tribes of Arabia and Persia, not against Jews and Christians. In fact, there is evidence that part of what made the Caliphate’s conquest of Byzantine and Persian territory so quick is that the Muslim invaders received aid from the Christian and Jewish religious minorities who were being persecuted and bearing the blunt of the financial burden for longstanding Roman-Persian wars. And far from forcing conversion, the Caliphate often permitted Christians and Jews to uphold their own laws and have their own legal proceedings. However, while there was relatively little violence towards Jews and Christians, many of the polytheistic peoples of what we today consider the Middle East were killed as part of early Islamic expansion. This sort of religious military cooperation is part of Islamic religious texts that far predate the Crusades. Though it should be noted that in the early days of Islam, Muhammad and his followers were often persecuted by the authorities in Mecca in a manner similar to what Christ and his followers experienced in Jerusalem.

2. The Crusades were a defensive or just war

Just to start, it really says something that no serious historian or anyone respected by the historical scholar community believes that statement. There are plenty of Catholic apologist groups still clinging to pre-Vatican II who have blogs and articles on the internet about how the Crusades were this heroic defensive maneuver to halt the Caliphate’s advance into Christian territories. “They took Jerusalem, and Antioch! Rome must be next!” Responding to all the possible angles of ignorance propelling a statement like this one would require way more time than I have available right now, but I’ll consider a few things.

First get your hands on a copy of Carl Erdmann’s “The Origin of the Idea of Crusade” in which he covers a breathtaking array of things happening theologically, politically, environmentally, and economically in medieval Europe that made the Crusades a possibility. A lot had to happen for the medieval church to get to a place where Crusades were taken on enthusiastically from the days of early Christian pacifism.

I tend to think that a good starting place is Charlemagne’s war on the Saxons in which Christianity first arrived on the British Isle. Though many were slaughtered, Charlemagne was able to justify his aggression to the Christians back home by telling them that gospel missions, not conquest, was his primary motivation. And it’s true, the conquest did initiate the spread of Christianity amongst the Anglo-Saxon people. But it was the first time that the idea of conquest for the sake of evangelism crept into the western Christian mind.

A next important ingredient is that the Christian civilizations of Europe were compelled to become militarized in order to ward off waves of viking invasions. Vikings had a keen love for the treasures within European monasteries and most of the time they didn’t leave any gold or living monks when they passed through. The monks got kind of fed up, and began cooperating more closely with local knights and even trained some of their own in the art of combat leading to the formation of groups like the “Holy Sepulcher.” This was the first real cooperation of “those who prayed” and “those who fought.”

Shortly after, an idea began to circulate that much like giving alms to the poor and consistently confessing all sin, defending the church militarily earned a heavenly reward. Note though, that this is not expansionist ideology. No Pope or Priest was espousing that you should go out and kick some Muslim butt in the name of Christ. If war came to us, then it was permissible, righteous even, to defend God’s people.

Next, it cannot be underestimated how significant the idea of the approaching year 1,000 A.D. was to the medieval Christians. Eschatology was as big a deal then as it is now, and a very popular idea was that Christ would return in the year 1,000, making it a nice clean millennium since he said he’d come back. When he didn’t return in 1,000 it was speculated that perhaps Christians needed to control the holy city of Jerusalem in order for Christ to return and establish his kingdom there. Additionally it was already very common for medieval Christians to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem. They could keep doing that and now just make sure that they had a sword or two in with the rest of the luggage. Getting to go on a partly sponsored pilgrimage with the added bonus of protection (traveling across a lot of land with an army made common crimes like robbery less likely) made the idea of crusade very appealing to medieval Christians. It should be noted too that the Caliphate welcomed these pilgrimages to Jerusalem (before they became militarized) and often gave the Christians warm welcoming service since it was a great source of revenue.

As I am not a military historian I prefer the “roots and fruits” concept of studying war, so I’m not as good with the details of every battle but here’s a ridiculously short run down. Though its classification is debated, some say that the “Reconquista” of Spain beginning around 1030 CE is a crusade. The Muslims controlled the southern half of the Spanish peninsula since the 8th century and many Muslims had immigrated there and many of the indigenous population had become Muslim. So the idea that this was a liberation effort is pretty inaccurate. It would be like a remnant of an old native American civilization invading the western United States tomorrow and calling it a liberation effort. The Caliphate possessed the state of Cordoba for more than 3 centuries before the Reconquista. Next comes what we call the First Crusade, which was a success from the European perspective. Major cities taken from the Caliphate were Edessa in 1098, Antioch in 1098 and Jerusalem in 1099. The Christian armies were lead by barons and experienced warriors, but no kings were present. It’s also interesting that despite embarking on a holy endeavor, we have many primary sources that indicate a wildly cumbersome number of prostitutes traveled with the armies for…well you know. Knights in the middle ages always traveled with their servants and wives though. Why would they cook or do their own laundry while traveling to war when they didn’t do it back home? The next 3 crusades were largely failures. Jerusalem was retaken by Salah Al-Din in 1187. And in the ensuing years several kings would lead armies to try and retake it. Popes sometimes preached sermons in Europe to inspire others to join the fight.

In the end, with the exception of Spain being reconquered, neither side ended up with much more or much less territory than they began the 11th century with. The major cities exchanged hands a couple times, but essentially reset to prewar dominion. One of the hardest things historians of the middle ages encounter is numbers. Populations of cities, army size, death tolls, etc. Those recording such data at the time were always estimating. If one wanted to express that the Muslims had a large army waiting in Jerusalem they might say “the Muslims had 100,000 men”. The actually number might have been smaller, more like 20,000 or perhaps it was larger, like 200,000. The figures just aren’t that reliable. Suffice it to say that lots of Christians died going on these “armed pilgrimages” and lots of Muslims died defending their longtime possessions and in the retaking of those same lands. It wasn’t a great moment for any parties involved.

How should we feel about the medieval Christians?

Even though the Crusades were a really horrible thing, perhaps one of the worst things we’ve ever historically tied the name of Christ to, it doesn’t make the medieval Christians the worst or actually even less than ourselves. Like Christians from every era, they had their moments where the genuine Christian faith seems pretty alien. I want to be clear, war is not sanctioned by the God we worship. Part of what makes Jesus’ teaching so radical is that he was asking his followers to end the cycle of violence by not perpetuating it, knowing that many would be tortured and killed for his name. Put away your sword and turn the other cheek because my kingdom is not advanced through the same means as Caesar’s. My kingdom is not of this world. The Crusades were a horrible idea, and to participate in them was sinful. But it would be equally tragic to characterize an entire era of Christians by these battles.

I’m writing a larger paper surveying the medieval Christians, so I’ll save a fuller set of remarks for when that’s more complete. To start, you’d be hard pressed to find a society where the poor were more well taken care of and supported with the resources available. Medieval Christians had a severe case of self-depreciation. There was more emphasis upon human sinfulness in the Middle Ages than in any time prior or since. This explains the intense search for shortcuts through purgatory and ways to deal with sinfulness. In the most extreme cases, this pressure lead some to believe there were things to do in addition to Christ’s sacrifice–an extra-biblical idea. But the Middle Ages do not contain more Christians than any other era who believed in any other foundation than the death and resurrection of Christ as the historical act upon which God would redeem sinners. There are countless places where the dangerous intersection of secular politics and Christianity give us some of the most entertaining and colorful primary sources in all of history. The frequent communications between kings and clerical hierarchy are often downright scathing of the one another. Much more to come, but the medieval Christians absolutely deserve as much a place in the study of church history as the patristics and reformers. To reduce them to being simply the Christians who went on Crusade or had a bunch of stuff wrong that the reformers fixed is a mistake. You’d be missing out on some of the richest theological developments and entertaining church history available.