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Don't Make This Mistake When Redeeming the Crusades

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I appreciate the recent efforts by scholars, enthusiasts, and Christians in general, to reorient how we understand the Crusades. From pieces at Patheos, to older features from First Things, to impassioned and fun infographics right here at the Intercollegiate Review, I’ve seen a lot of great work done on behalf of the medieval peoples of Outremer. We need these efforts because popular views often reduce the complexity of the Crusades to economic or other selfish motivations. Religion plays the opiate, a position too often used to perpetuate negative stereotypes about theists, especially Christians. Classrooms continue to ignore the role of faith in the years following 1066.

But the question remains: Shouldn’t we rehabilitate the Crusades more carefully? My fear is that our revisions risk hypostatizing one part of a complex and difficult narrative.

History isn’t simple. While the Crusades weren’t the vehicles of white, male brutality against Muslims of the Levant, neither were they simply heroic expeditions carried out for religious reasons. Many Crusaders were faithful, loving people motivated by a desire to defend Eastern Christians. Others were probably adventure seekers. How else can we explain entirely un-Christian massacres of Jews and Muslims alongside reports of cannibalism? Even if we recognize that “Just War Theory” validates the European decision to reclaim Jerusalem, isn’t it still regrettable? Violence is rarely, if ever, a cause for celebration, even when carried out for noble ends. Even as we rehabilitate the Crusades, we risk erecting visions of pure and godly men incapable of atrocity, representing the best of the Christian spirit, when the reality, like most historical realities, is far more complex.

To choose a historical analogue, I would turn to Black American historical revisionism, which demonstrates both the need for occasional historical revision and the extremes possible. Following centuries of discrimination, many African American intellectuals decided the history of the black person needed rehabilitation: Africans living in America were not weaker, intellectually stultified chattel incapable of rational thought, as many had been taught. These intellectuals acted nobly to correct ideas both unsavory and untrue. Unfortunately, however, many of them promoted theories that those interested in the truth of history are still fighting today. Examples include the idea that Jesus was supposedly black (or that all ancient Jews were black), that the ancient Egyptians and all initial civilizations of any merit were black, and that most black slaves brought to America were Muslims, meaning African Americans can most fully reclaim their heritage by reverting to Islam, often of an extremist, racist variety. None of these views are true or stand up to even basic historical scrutiny, but the rage at generations of discrimination lends them credence. I fear the same outcome for my well-intentioned friends who are trying to revise the history of the Crusades.

I don’t mean to imply that every movement intends extremism. I’m simply warning against the possible directions our revisions might lead us. If we seek the truth in history (as we should in all things), we must pay attention to the difficulties and facts of the past. Our Crusader ancestors were a mixture of devoted religious warriors and opportunists, of faithful Catholics and possibly cannibalistic marauders.

We owe ourselves better than to trade one extreme for another.

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