Crusaders seem to be one of a handful of stereotypical bro heroes that grown men, especially with a military or law enforcement background, aspire to emulate. Usually this is fueled by a heavily unhistoric image of historic events. Other than Crusaders, Vikings and Spartans seem to scratch a special itch of that demographic. The Norwegian series Norsemen does a great job of satirizing the false bro-image of Vikings. It is a hilarious series and worth watching. Conversely, the popularity of the Spartans took off with their portrayal in the movie “300”. I mean, all homoerotic undertones aside, who doesn't want to be part of a phalanx of extremely jacked bodybuilder-warriors and fight for FREEDOM!!!! ? There is a very thorough explanation of why the Spartans do not fit their popular image and how they built a deplorable society. They weren't even the best warriors of Ancient Greece (they were beaten by the Thebans in the Battle of Leuctra).
Recently I saw an ad for a knife called “The Crusader" (from a company that shall go unnamed) touting religious war rhetoric and talking about killing people which prompted me to write this article. As a non-Christian member of a Western military (and someone who is married to a Christian), this topic is very important to me and I think people who dedicated themselves to upholding their modern Western democracies should do some thinking before they go down the Crusader rabbit hole.
What is a Crusade?
Scholars have differing opinions on the exact characteristics of Crusades. However, some elements seem to be agreed upon. A Crusade is a military undertaking or expedition (not exclusively to a faraway country) that has often the characteristics or feel of a pilgrimage, with an element of penance to it. This means that, according to Medieval thought, Crusaders would be absolved of all confessed sins. According to Crusading and the Crusader States by Andrew Jotischky, the blueprint for a Crusade was set by the First Crusade:
“The First Crusade has usually been seen as the blueprint for a successive series of wars following more or less the same pattern: the preaching of a holy war authorised by the pope and accompanied by the offer of spiritual rewards, followed by a military expedition undertaken by the nobility, sometimes including royal princes, against territory held by the Turks or any other enemy considered equally threatening to the stability of Christendom." [emphasis mine]
It is implied here that Crusades never had a national/patriotic character, they were about protecting (Catholic) Christendom.
Jotischky (2013) further states that a Crusading Vow, an essential prerequisite, “...was made to a cleric and formed a contract with God." This means that Crusades were either initiated, supported or directed by the Catholic Church, i.e. they were an exclusively Catholic thing. Orthodox and breakaway factions from Catholicism did not go on Crusades. Crusades were conducted against all kinds of non-Catholics, not exclusively against Muslims, including pagans (Norse and Slavic) as well as heretics, i.e. those that broke away from the Catholic Church. Infighting and rivalry between Catholic lords prevented the organization of a Crusade against Protestants in the 16th century.
Who were the Crusaders and where did they go?
Crusaders came from all walks of life. What seems to be surprising is that the “official" Crusades to the Middle East were dominated by nobility, men-at-arms and knights as well as princes and many kings. For example, Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany participated in the Second Crusade, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I „Barbarossa" took part in the Third Crusade (and drowned in a river in modern-day Turkey), as well as Richard I „Lionheart" of England and Philip II of France. The motivation for crusading changed from „the recovery of territory that ought by rights to belong to Christendom to the more general threat posed by the existence of Islam[,]" (Jotischky (2013)). This was a classic “us against them,” in which “them” included everybody (children, women, elderly, not just males of military age).
However, these were not the only ones to go on Crusades. As fallout from the First Crusade, poor Christians led by the French priest Peter the Hermit embarked on the People's Crusade, where they rampaged through Europe and massacred Jews (see Slavin (2010) and Kedar (1998)).
According to Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades by Jonathan Phillips, the First Crusade started as a confluence of events that took on a dynamic of their own. The Byzantine Empire had had trouble with Muslim states on its borders for a long time and there was a tradition of the Byzantine asking for help from Western Europeans and receiving help in the form of Western mercenaries. In March 1095 envoys from Constantinople arrived in Rome, again asking for help against the Muslims. Phillips further states that Pope Urban II used this request to push his agenda. First of all, he wanted to enhance relations between Rome and Constantinople, as there had been a split, the Church Schism, between the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church on the grounds of who was senior to who (the Roman Catholic Pope or the Orthodox Patriarch). Furthermore, he wanted to stop Christians fighting other Christians in Western Europe and guide their Martial energy to a more „worthy" goal (see Jotischky (2013) and Phillips (2010)). There was the Peace and Truce of God movement that tried to stop the fighting in Europe and there were several efforts from the Catholic Church to stop the bloodshed. They had not been successful, though. To do so, Pope Urban II had to rile up the Christians of Western Europe to leave their homes and embark on this great pilgrimage to save their souls and reconquer what they thought belonged to them as Christians. Christians at that time were very pious and there had been spontaneous outbreaks of piety and religiosity in the past (see Slavin (2010) for a further inquiry into why). Pope Urban II used this piety by greatly exaggerating the situation in the Middle East. According to Phillips (2010), “[…][…] Women and children were not spared in this brutal orgy of destruction. The crusaders ‚seized infants by the soles of their feet from their mothers' laps or their cradles and dashed them against walls or broke their necks; they were slaughtering some with weapons [others] with stones; they were sparing absolutely no gentile of any place or kind.' The horrors of these events has left an indelible stain on Muslim-Christian relations down the centuries."
How anybody could aspire to this is beyond me.
The First Crusade was followed by another five Crusades into the Middle East with differing degrees of success. What is interesting is that the Catholic Crusaders sacked and pillaged Constantinople (a fellow Christian city...just not the right kind of Christian) and murdered many of its inhabitants.
There were also lesser-known Crusades. The Reconquista, the re-conquest of the Iberian peninsula from Arabs and Berbers (and the subsequent destruction of a multicultural society) was considered a Crusade, as well as several campaigns against break-away factions from the Catholic Church. Infighting between Catholic noblemen prevented another Crusade against Luther and his Protestants; being Protestant was not okay with Crusaders.
There were also the Northern Crusades, campaigns into the Baltics with the pretext of Christianizing or killing the pagans but with the actual goal of securing trade routes and opportunities and snatching the fur trade from them (Interestingly enough the Northern Crusades became the domain of the Teutonic Order, which founded the State of the Teutonic Order, which became Prussia…) (see The Northern Crusades by Eric Christiansen).
This goes to show that Crusaders were also not cool with pagans. So if you are someone who is really into Crusaders but also into Valhalla, I am not sure those two go together.
The Meaning of Words and the Pillars of Western Liberal Democracies
Words have meanings and how we use them directly reflects how we think of ourselves and others. That's why many news outlets and governments in the West prefer the term Daesh to refer to the most recent death cult in the Middle East.
How we refer to ourselves and how we look at our own past...those are important signals we send to the outside world. Western nations have often fought side by side with Muslim nations in the Middle East. Many Western nations have significant Muslim populations, who often seem themselves as part of these nations. Muslims everywhere still remember the atrocities committed by the Crusaders. How can we proselytize democracy and human rights when we aspire to what was even then considered criminal and barbaric? What message do we send to the world when we criticize others, go to war with them for not upholding democratic ideals and human rights and then turn around and worship those who were okay slapping infants into walls?
Furthermore, modern liberal democracy, as expressed in the US Constitution, my own Germany's Basic Law or any other Western nation's constitution, does not permit the kind of religious war and barbarism for which the Crusades (or any other type of religiously motivated war regardless of which religion) stand for.
You probably think that some aspects of Pagan and Norse culture are cool. You are probably not into killing people who don't exactly believe the same as you. You might not even be Catholic. You are definitely not into killing infants, children and women. And you probably think that the US Constitution or in case you are not American, the Western democratic system of your own country, is pretty cool.
So why don't we drop the silly Crusader rhetoric already?
Ilhan Akcay is a German infantry officer with a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in aerospace engineering, currently pursuing a B.A. in history. He writes about training and readiness on his blog School of War. He loves Germany, America, and travelling. All opinions expressed are his own and his own only.