For many Christians, living in the 21st century, the Crusades are an uncomfortable topic which may generate feelings of confusion, sadness, and guilt. Many of these feelings are due to the various narratives of fighting and bloodshed given by both secular and Christian sources. As a follower of Christ, it can be difficult to reconcile how the church of that time so willingly marched off to battle, knowing the same scriptures we highly regard today. Furthermore, when Christians participating in the Reconciliation Walk of the late 1990’s promote statements that say “Nine hundred years ago, our forefathers carried the name of Jesus Christ in battle across the Middle East. Fueled by fear, greed and hatred, they betrayed the name of Christ by conducting themselves in a manner contrary to His wishes and character.”  Does this indict the whole of the Crusades to being total evidence of corruption of the Church?[1] How does this align with the historical context and what history tells us of those that took up the Cross? In this paper I will show that many have misunderstood the events leading up to the Crusades and the motivations of those that went on crusade. While Muslims were not the only enemies Crusaders fought, I will address the Islamic enemy specifically as it is best known and was the target of apologies from those participating in the Reconciliation Walk.[2] Furthermore, my aim is to dispel the myths that the Crusades were fueled by greed and hatred.[3] I will first examine the expansion of Islam through conquest from the perspective of the Byzantine and Catholic Church. Second, I will explore the treatment of Christian pilgrims and Christian holy sites within the context of the time period and ideologies held by Christians during that time. Finally, in response to the accusation of greed as a motivating factor, I will review the costs and expectations of gain by those crusading and those financing the crusades.

Birth and Expansion of Islam

To understand the answer to the question “why did the Crusades take place,” one must first understand the events leading up to the Crusades. To simply begin with the pope’s sermon at Clermont or the campaigns occurring between 1095 and ending in 1291, is to examine the effect without reflecting on the cause.[4]

With the conversion of Constantine in AD 312, Christianity found itself bound with state government and the unchallenged religion across most of Europe, the Near East and North Africa until the seventh century AD.[5] However, with the birth of a new religion, Islam, and the death of its founder, Mohammed, in 632; caliphs (successors), waged a relentless series of attacks against neighboring peoples.[6] Within a century, Islam controlled Persia, Egypt, and Syria.[7] Pausing only briefly due to internal strife amongst Islamic leaders, the relentless conquest by Islam continued well into the 8th century, with Muslim forces taking control of North Africa, crossing the Pyrenees and capturing nearly all of Spain.[8]

In reviewing the Muslim expansion, we see that these two religions, Christianity and Islam, had been in conflict long before the First Crusade was ever launched.[9] As Jonathan Riley explains, “the crusading movement was a succession of episodes in a continuum of hostility between the two religions.”[10] The Islamic conquests began simply because Muhammad had sufficiently gathered a military force for him to contemplate expansion beyond Arabia and the wealth to the north and east were there for the taking without risking the peace and security of Arabia.[11]

Starting with Syria in 633, Muslims were able to win a series of battles and take Damascus which eventually became the Islamic capital of the growing empire following a crippling defeat of the Byzantine army at Yarmouk.[12] At the same time, other Arab forces were pummeling Persian forces, inflicting devastating losses to the Persian ranks.[13] With the Greek forces crushed, the Muslim military was able to enter Palestine mostly uncontested, and in 636, lay siege to Jerusalem until its surrender in 638.[14] Within four years, Muslims were then able to capture the strategic port city of Alexandria. Although the city changed control a couple of times, Arabs had by 649 solidified their control and established a fleet of ships using the captured Egyptian shipyards.[15] By 711, Islam had conquered all of the North African coast and “an army of seven to ten thousand Muslims from Morocco had crossed the Mediterranean…and landed on the coast of Spain.”[16]

The battle of Tours/Poitiers saw the Muslim conquering of Spain began to ebb.[17] The significance of this single battle gives light to the dire circumstances which the Christian world faced. Many historians believe that this single battle was the determining factor as to whether the West would have become Islamic or remained Christian.[18] For those who have lived within the past hundred years in the West, it is difficult to understand the context in which Christians of the tenth and eleventh centuries were living in. They were seeing the gradual expansion of Islam spreading closer and closer to where they lived, and hundreds of years of a defensive posture was not ebbing the conquest. For nineteenth and early twentieth century historians to express views that the crusades were merely “wars of conquest, motors of economic expansion and expressions of colonialism” is to ignore the historical pretext to the engagement of the crusades.[19] In contrast to these historians and when considering the pretext to the crusades, it is more plausible that, as stated by Bruce Shelley, “the Christians sought to counter Islam’s remarkable military conquest and preserve their geographic strongholds from being overrun.”[20] The loss of lands sheds light on the geographical challenges. However, it does not explore the deeper question as to how Christians living under Islamic rule were treated. As the Christian world condensed and the Islamic world grew, increasing numbers of Christians were living in Muslim-controlled territories. Furthermore, the treatment of Christians living in these territories and those making pilgrimages through these lost lands were significant issues leading up to the crusades.

Islamic Tolerance

The conquest by Islam was more than just the loss of land to the Christians of that time. Cities which held vast religious significance were now controlled by Islam. Jerusalem, home to the Church of the Sepulchre, the very burial place of Jesus; Alexandria, Antioch, Carthage and Damascus; cities of great scholarship and significance, were all lost. Most likely, beginning with Voltaire, notions of Islamic tolerance in order to “cast the Catholic Church in the worst possible light” began to emerge.[21] The truth is that while Jews and Christians were supposed to be allowed to follow their faiths, it was permitted only under very repressive conditions.[22] No new churches or synagogues were to be built, and no reading of scriptures or praying aloud were permitted.[23] To a twenty-first century culture, this may not appear, on the surface, to be a horrible intolerance. However, to seventh and eighth century Jews and Christians, this stripped them of being permitted to freely practice their faith. The Church during this time held tightly to traditions and sacraments viewed as essential to one’s eventual entry into heaven. One of these traditions was that of penance. For many, penance meant a pilgrimage to the holy sites of Christianity: to go and visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the forgiveness of sin.[24] However, with the conquest of the Christian holy lands, the persecution of pilgrims became common. Similar to many of the stories of modern-day ISIS incursions into Iraq and Syria, Christians and Jews were often given the choice of conversion or death. Numerous events are recorded of Muslims slaughtering Christians and destroying churches throughout the holy land, which challenges the claims of religious tolerance shown by Islam.[25]

The expansion of Islam and the treatment of Christians remaining in Muslim-controlled territories demolishes the argument that the Crusades were unprovoked and motivated by Christian hatred. Hatred and intolerance were heavily leveled against Christians by the Muslim conquerors. This is not to say that Muslims were free from evils done to them by Christians. But what has been effectively demonstrated is that the rapid expansion of Islam and persecution of Christians played a big role in promoting a cause for the Crusades. Along with the persecution came the destruction of many sacred Christian sites. Arguably the final straw came with the sixth Fatimid caliph in Egypt, Tariqu al-Hakim. He “ordered the burning or confiscation of all Christian churches” (approximately thirty thousand sites), along with the “stripping and complete destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, including all traces of the carved-out tomb beneath it.”[26] This single act was highly provocative, considering it removed the very place pilgrimages were made for penance. This act would be to the eleventh century Christian similar to the hypothetical scene of twenty first century Christians utterly destroying the Kaaba within the Grand Mosque at Mecca. It does not take a leap of the imagination to visualize the outcry for jihad that would arise from Muslims around the world in response to this hypothetical action. Likewise, it would be incredibly biased to twist the motivations of the crusades and create a narrative of hatred and colonial conquest. Furthermore, as we will see next, greed as a motivating factor is also a false narrative spun by many historians in further attempts to indict the Catholic Church with allegations of evil and corruption.

For Riches and Plunder?

In their book Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm, the authors promote the idea, as they explain: “All of the Crusades…may be seen as an essential part of a general wealth-maximizing strategy.”[27] If this is true it would seem that the West was looking to “cash in” on an unfortunate set of circumstances for their Christian brothers in the east. As Winston Churchill once said, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Perhaps this was their chance to pull the “hat trick” of all history: expel the Muslims, bring the eastern brethren back under the authority of the Latin Church and fill their treasuries with all the riches of the east. How does this hypothesis bode when considering the costs required, sacrifices made to go on crusade, and the expectation of financial gain?

First, we must explore what was required to go on crusade. Typically, a knight needed “armor, arms, at least one warhorse (preferably two or three), a riding horse, packhorses…servants, clothing, tenting and enough cash to buy supplies along the way.”[28] This meant that most crusaders were finding it necessary to raise four to five times their annual income prior to setting off on crusade.[29] This is an enormous amount of money to have available by standards of any time period! If this were to be a mission for financial gain and each crusading knight needed four to five times their annual income, it begs the question of what sort of return on investment must they have been anticipating?

But not all crusaders had this money, so what sacrifices were made to be able to go on crusade? The wealthier knights put those lacking sufficient funds on their payrolls, while others sold their property such as vineyards, mills and forests.[30] There are records of significant sales, as in the case of Godfrey of Bouillon; who sold the entire county of Verdun to King Philip of France.[31] With such a liquidation of wealth and expenditure, for this to be all for the sake of financial gain would require the expectation of a massive return from conquest.

However, in countering the financial gain hypothesis by stating the sacrifices made by the crusaders, the authors of Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm state: “Such simple statements overlook the possibility that the rush to raise cash might have been motivated by a competition to claim economic rents in the Holy Land before they could be dissipated, not unlike the kind of activity in North America touched off by the California Gold Rush.”[32] I disagree! Unfortunately for the book authors, such “simple statements” overlook the reality that the crusaders were well aware of the journey they were taking, and unlike the authors’ theory that many were expecting to corner the market as eleventh century real estate tycoons, most crusaders didn’t expect to return. Crusaders were well aware of the dangers they were going to face. These were men of war and many of them had already made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, thus knowing the perils of the journey alone. Furthermore, if the opportunity for financial return was so promising, then why did eighty-five to ninety percent of the Frankish knights not respond to the pope’s call to the Crusade?[33] The accusation that these knights and infantrymen went on crusade with the motivation of financial gain is not only unsubstantiated based on historical facts and context, it is also demeaning to the crusaders themselves.

Conclusion

Discussions and articles around the Crusades will often bring a mixture of dialogue, thoughts and opinions regarding the morality and justification for the actions taken during those campaigns. While the purpose of this paper was not to minimize, justify, or excuse some of the atrocities committed or to dispel any of the un-Christ like behavior that was committed in the name of Christ, this paper did set the record straight on several misconceptions regarding the motivations of the Crusades. It has been shown that the Crusades were not unprovoked campaigns fueled by hatred and fear. Furthermore, it has been shown that claims regarding the motivation of greed and financial wealth are absurd and lack substantive evidence when considering the sacrifice and anticipated loss, not only of material wealth, but in the sacrificing of one’s own life in following the path of the crusader.


[1] B.A. Robinson, “Christian Apology for the Crusades: The Reconciliation Walk,” Religious Tolerance, October 29, 2018, http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_cru1.htm.

[2] Jonathan Riley-Smith, “Rethinking the Crusades,” First Things,October 31, 2018, https://www.firsthings.com/article/2000/03/rethinking-the-crusades.

[3] Robinson, “Christian Apology for the Crusades”.

[4] Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), Introduction, iBooks.

[5] Thomas F. Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), 13.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Riley-Smith, “Rethinking the Crusades”.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Stark, God’s Battalions, chap. 1.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., chap. 2.

[18] Ibid.,

[19] Christopher Tyerman, The Debate on the Crusades (New York, NY: Manchester University Press, 2011), 5.

[20] Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 4th ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), chap. 19, iBooks.

[21] Stark, God’s Battalions, chap. 1.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., chap. 4.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Robert B. Ekelund, Robert F. Hebert, Robert D. Tollison, Gary M. Anderson, Audrey B. Davidson, Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 132.

[28] Stark, God’s Battalions, chap. 5.

[29] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), 43.

[30] Stark, God’s Battalions, chap. 5.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ekelund, Sacred Trust, 132.

[33] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A History. 2nd ed. (London: Continuum, 2005), 23.