Shortly after 9/11, President Bush called for a crusade against terrorists. His
aides were immediately apprised of the enraged reaction in the Muslim world
against this unscripted remark. Islam can remember those bloody assaults by
papal armies over more than three centuries as most Americans cannot -- if
indeed we ever knew much about them at all. Most wrote off Bush's remark as just
one more verbal gaffe, and he used the word crusade no more.
subsequent events over the next 17 months (when George W. Bush transferred his
ire from the terrorist he couldn't find to the nearest available villain) show
that the president used exactly the right word to describe his efforts to launch
a war against any force that he cares to identify as part of "the axis of
Bush had long been indoctrinated in the notion that men can find something holy
in war -- whenever they align themselves in the simple struggle of good against
evil. Killing an ungodly enemy: this is what has always made a war holy.
President Bush keeps taking up the theme. He talks often about America's
"divinely guided mission." During his September 20, 2001 speech to
Congress, he said, "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been
at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." The implication
is God will intervene on the world stage, mediating between good and evil. In
his State of the Union address last month, Bush said that we place confidence in
the loving God "behind all of life, and all of history" and that
"we go forward with confidence, because this call of history has come to
the right country. May He guide us now."
so incredibly, Osama bin Laden uses the same kind of God-talk. "Fight the
agents of the devil," he says, calling on Muslims throughout the world in a
videotape distributed in late February to unite behind Iraq. "God will give
President Bush and Osama bin Laden mirror each other's fundamentalism, a kind
of righteous self-delusion that could trigger an all-out shooting war between
the West and a billion Muslims. Or, more likely, a series of 9/11-type attacks
by militant Muslim extremists in the world's major cities for years to come,
followed by eye-for-an-eye reprisals by the countries that have come under
prospect forces a cool look at the delusional nature of this thing called holy
war – best illustrated by the arguments Pope Urban II used when he
launched the First Crusade against the evil empire of Islam at Clermont in
southern France in 1095. To better understand the rhetorical (and the real)
thrust of this move, we could pretend for a moment that The New York Times
was there. Here is a story that John Kifner or Francis X. Clines might have
FRANCE, NOV. 27 -- Pope Urban II, responding to a general threat on Christendom
from "an accursed race, a barbarous people, estranged from God,"
called today for a holy war against Islam.
ordains it," he told a crowd of several thousand, which included bands of
knights from all of Western Europe. The knights have been fighting for years
against one another. But today they gathered together, along with several
hundred prelates who are here for a general church council, monks from the
Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, representatives of the French nobility, and clusters
of the curious.
To this crowd,
the pope reported that the Seljuk Turks had seized Jerusalem. This gave
Christians only one choice, according to the pope, who spoke not in Latin, but
in the language of his native France. "Come forward to the defense of
Christ, you who have carried on feuds, come to the war against the infidels. You
who have been thieves, become soldiers. Fight a just war. Labor for everlasting
reward, with God's guidance."
At this point, a murmur seemed to rise from the multitude on this still autumn
day, and then a shout that reverberated to the bell tower of the Church of Our
Lady of the Gate. Dieu lo vult! "God wills it!"
Others took up the cry. "God wills it." Above the voices, steel
clanged as men jerked swords from their sheaths.
seemed to take their response as a sign. "Unless the Lord God had been here
in your minds," he said, "you would not have cried out in this way, as
one. And so I say that God has drawn this cry from you. Let it be your battle
cry. When you go against the enemy, let this shout be raised -- `God wills
"Do not fear death," he said, "where Christ laid down his life
for you." He assured the knights that any who lose their lives in
this holy war, even on their way by sea or land, would get full remission of
their sins, and go straight to heaven, "as soldiers of Christ."
The pope also
pointed out that those who did not die could keep control of the lands they
conquered. "Take the road to Jerusalem," he said, "rescue that
land from a dreadful race and rule over it yourselves, for the land that flows
with milk and honey (as the Scripture says) was given by God as a possession to
the children of Israel."
indicated that a foreign expedition leading to the control of foreign kingdoms
would ease domestic quarrels in France, a country he called
The pope may
have been referring to the current demographic situation in France, where, under
the law of primogeniture, land cannot be divided, but must pass to the eldest
son in every family. Younger sons who leave their ancestral farms must turn to a
career in the church, or become troubadours, or play at war (see Sports, p. 1,
for George Vecsey's report on yesterday's tournament at Reims, won by Godfrey of
young knights do more than play, a fact pointed out by the pope. After his
remarks on "overcrowding," the pope said, "This is why you devour
and fight one another, make war and even kill one another as you exchange
called a council at Clermont, among other reasons, in order to curb the feudal
wars that have been wracking Europe. Now, it seems that the pope intends to make
peace at home by urging the battling knights into a war abroad, as early as the
hearers, the pope's argument made logical sense. In the main, however, the pope
was not talking reason, but faith. He made it clear that this foreign war would
be a holy war. His sermon, which effectively ended the Council of Clermont, was
made more stirring by his frequent references to the glory of the Kingdom of
Heaven, and to the Holy Redeemer. At one dramatic moment, the pope said,
"Lo, I see before you, leading you to His war, the standard bearer who is
Almost on cue, a tall, strikingly handsome man made his way to the platform and
asked for a command in this new army of God. A papal aide said this was Adhemar
of Monteil, bishop of Le Puy, and the author of a popular hymn, Salve
With a hint of
a smile, the pope leaned down and blessed Adhemar, and, with an upraised palm,
motioned for him to stand and face the crowd. Papal aides said this was a sign
that the pope would dispense this bishop from the normal strictures against
clerics taking up arms in any cause, and that he would lead the "soldiers
of Christ" to Jerusalem.
At this, one
of the band of cardinals standing on the platform with the pope led the crowd in
a chanting of the Confiteor, a Latin prayer in which the assembly confessed
their sins "to almighty God, to blessed Mary ever virgin, to holy Michael
the archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul,
and to all the saints."
When they were finished, the pope
absolved the entire gathering with one sweeping sign of the cross.
Urban's mentor, Gregory VII, had dreamed of sending armed pilgrims to Jerusalem,
papal aides said this was the first time that any pope had ever issued a call to
holy war. A pilgrim from Normandy, however, pointed out that Pope Leo IX had
himself led what he called "a holy war" against a marauding Norman
army in Italy some forty years ago in 1053. The Norman said he was surprised,
but pleased, to discover that these same Normans were now being asked to fight
in the papal army against Islam.
to the pope said they had suspected the pope had been mulling this historic
initiative for some time. No pope, they said, had ever traveled this far from
Rome, and never before to France. "With Guibert on the throne of
Peter," said one of them, who asked not to be identified, "His
Holiness had to do something to consolidate his power. Here in France, he has
now firmly in power in Rome, and Pope Urban II, visiting in France, each claims
the papacy today. Each shows solid political support -- Guibert from the
Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, Urban from a solid bloc of cardinals (who elected
him three years ago in a conclave at Terracina so that he could carry on the
reforms begun by Hildebrand, Pope Gregory VII).
Urban also derives moral (and, it is said, substantial financial) support from
the Benedictine monks at Cluny, the richest monastery in Christendom. Born 42
years ago to a noble family in Chatillon-sur-Marne, Urban was once a member of
the Benedictine Order at Cluny. He was re-assigned to Rome and moved quite
naturally into the diplomatic corps of Gregory VII, who appointed him
cardinal-archbishop of Ostia at age 36. Though based in Rome, Urban has kept
close ties with Cluny. And the power and wealth of Cluny may figure further in
summoned a general council in southern France ostensibly to extend "the
Truce of God," and to correct current abuses in the church, such as the
selling of church offices and the proliferating number of priests who have taken
wives or concubines.
surprised to hear him call today for a holy war against Islam, a plan which the
pope did not share with anyone until he had safely crossed into France. Now,
said a source who asked not to be identified, "a war against the foreign
devils will draw a good many more resources to Urban's side." The source
said the Normans who now occupy Sicily and other parts of Italy will be sure to
join in the holy war, and, he suspected, so will the seafaring merchants of
Venice, and the arms dealers of Pisa and Genoa.
who were with Urban at the Council of Piacenza last year said they were less
surprised by the call for holy war against Islam. At Piacenza, they said, the
pope had received a messenger from the Emperor of Constantinople, Alexius I
Comnenus, asking for assistance from Christians of the West in a military effort
to regain lands lost to the Seljuk Turks.
sources said the pope believes that giving military aid to Alexius may be a way
of achieving ecclesiastical unity with Eastern Christians.
The Seljuk Turks,
according to pilgrims returning from the Middle East, have seized control of the
Byzantine cities of Nicaea and Antioch and taken Jerusalem from the Fatamids of
been under Moslem control for almost four centuries, and its leaders have always
granted freedom of worship to Christians living there (while charging them a
special tax in the bargain). But the Seljuk Turks represent an evil new force in
the Middle East, according to one papal aide, who added, "And they are,
after all, unbelievers, unbelievers who are in control of Christ's Holy
Sepulcher at Jerusalem."
never more on the pope's lips than it was today. Toward the end of his talk, the
pope evoked the image of the Holy City, "a land watered by Christ's
blood." He referred to Jerusalem as "the kingdom of God now laid
waste by a degenerate race, servants to devils."
As the crowd
dispersed today, the words "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" were on the lips of
many. One knot of clerics pointed to a cloud formation in the hazy Eastern sky.
"It's Jerusalem! Jerusalem!" they cried. "A sign from
took up the call.
Urban's call to sacred violence hardly struck his medieval Christians as
strange. Medieval liturgy and medieval preaching -- which filled the peoples'
lives then as the mass media fills ours today -- found ample precedent for holy
war in the stories of the Old Testament. They believed that the ancient
Israelites fought holy wars at God's command. But they were wrong. Modern
Biblical scholars tell us that the point of the Old Testament accounts is not
that the ancient Israelites fought battles in God's name, but that they and the
nation of Israel came to terrible grief in fighting them. "The real
lessons," says David Noel Freedman, a ranking American Biblical scholar and
editor of the Anchor Bible, "come not so much from the stories of the
Israelites smiting the Philistines in battle, but from the prophets who take a
very jaundiced view of their leaders' pretensions."
the Jews didn't invent holy war. Holy wars are as old as recorded history
4,000 years before Christ, the Sumerian city-state was a theocracy, ruled by the
god of the city. Later, kingship developed among the Sumerians, and the king
became the god's viceroy. Battles fought on behalf of this king, then, became
battles "for the god's viceroy." Suddenly, "the god's
viceroy" found recruiting young men for his wars a bit easier. The
Egyptians took the scam one step further. The leaders of 29th century Egypt were
better than god's mere viceroys, they became gods in their own right. When the
pharaoh said, "Let's make war," that was the voice of God, or, at
least, of a god. Under orders from their gods, then, or their gods' viceroys,
the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians could weave war and worship in the same
Today, moderns pride themselves on not being taken in by this kind of
flim-flam. We are not living in an age of faith, but of reason. But when we talk
about war, we need to delude ourselves, to tell ourselves that it has nothing to
do with land, or oil, or trade advantages or political power or sheer historical
hatred. We delude ourselves most successfully when we take a religious stance.
Wars that are called holy still rage today -- in the Middle East, in India
and Pakistan, in Ireland. For those who do not understand why the U.S is lining
up against Iraq (almost alone among the nations of the West), here is an answer:
"We're fighting a holy war."
was America's unconscious religion for most of the 20th century. For
40 years during the War that was called Cold, the U.S. waged a holy war against
the Soviet Union. In his famous "evil empire" speech to a national
convention of evangelicals on March 8, 1983, in Orlando, Florida, Pres. Ronald
Reagan gave the game away by plagiarizing Urban's words of holy war, using
essentially the same images that inflamed the hearts of those who raised the
papal banner in 1095. Pres. Reagan decried Communism as "the focus of evil
in the modern world" and asked for support of his arms buildup, designed to
curb "the aggressive impulses of an evil empire." He praised his
audience of ministers, "who are keeping America great by keeping her
good," and warned them not to "label both sides equally at
fault." This fight with the Soviet Union, he said, is a "struggle
between right and wrong and good and evil." He quoted Whittaker Chambers,
who wanted America to counter Communism's faith in Man with the Western World's
faith in God. He quoted the prophet Isaiah, who had written about the people
renewing their strength from the Lord and mounting up "with wings as
eagles." And he quoted Thomas Paine's eschatological vision: "We have
it within our power to begin the world over again."
these holy words, Pres. Reagan was not simply telling the ministers in Orlando
what he thought they wanted to hear. He believed it, every word of it. But he
had an ulterior motive, acknowledged by his aides, and duly noted by the
American press. In his evil empire speech, Pres. Reagan was making a calculated
effort to win back general public support against a nuclear freeze resolution
pending in the U.S. House of Representatives (which would eventually pass, 278
to 149, on May 4, 1983) and for a rapid $1.6 trillion buildup in military
hardware that was now beginning to erode. Just two weeks before, in the issue of
March 7,Time magazine, never a journal to quibble over Pres. Reagan's
hard line against the Soviet Union, had published an 11-page cover story crying
alarm over "runaway weapons costs" and urging "a new look at
Time article reflected current public opinion -- that the Pentagon was
wasting taxpayer dollars, not only on $600 coffee pots, and $1,000 toilet seats,
but on high tech military hardware. Examples: B-1B bombers, at $285 million
each, $17 million helicopters, M-1 tanks, at $2.7 million a copy, and two more
$3.5 billion aircraft carriers. Time 's verdict: these systems weren't
working well, and they wouldn't help fight future battles.
wake of press criticism such as this, Reagan's advisers told reporters by way of
background, "We need to give a better justification for our military
plans." The best way to do that, they said, was to "emphasize once
again the threat of Soviet expansionism." The president did even better
than that. He reminded the nation that we were fighting a holy war.
was on our side, and God would be there for the rest of Reagan's days in office.
His administration continued to lay out $300 billion a year on the military, and
found excuses, some of them contradictory, for not nailing down an agreement
with the Soviet Union for arms control, while Reagan and his rhetoricians went
on with talk of holy war. And the American people continued to buy this talk,
because the president was giving overt expression to something deeper, but
hidden -- to our faith in America, a faith that many Americans have fallen into
almost without knowing it.
Mircea Eliade put it in The Sacred and the Profane,
...the majority of men `without
religion' still hold to pseudo-religions and degenerated mythologies. There is
nothing surprising in this, for... profane man is the descendant of homo
religiosus and he cannot wipe out his own history -- that is, the
behavior of his religious ancestors which has made him what he is today. This is
all the more true because a great part of his existence is fed by impulses that
come to him from the depths of his being, from the zone that is called "the
of history has helped groove the way we think -- so that a modern scholar,
Ernest Becker, could maintain, "All wars are religious wars," and a
modern sociologist, Hugh D. Duncan, could report, "We march to death in the
name of God, country, ideology, destiny, or way of life."
as we march, we are caught up in a myth, melding the primitive forces of
religion with something equally primitive, something that Norman O. Brown has
called the deadly serious "game of Eros and Thanatos." It is a myth
that can turn into a deadly delusion -- as it did in the Crusades, as it did in
the Cold War, as it is doing now in the fight against Iraq.
Crusades, to be sure, made an undeniable contribution to the growth of Western
civilization. They put the people of Western Europe on the march. These were
people who, historians say, hardly ever left their isolated little valleys; they
might meet perhaps a hundred persons during the course of an entire lifetime.
Now thousands would set out on an armed pilgrimage that would take them
thousands of miles from home. Those who didn't lose their lives on that march
came home with new tastes, new ideas, new ways of being. The first of the
Crusaders left a Europe still stuck in something historians once called the Dark
Ages. The last of them returned to a continent beginning to bud -- and
blossom into the Renaissance. Marshall W. Baldwin, a noted American medieval
scholar, wrote that the Crusades left us with another enduring legacy -- the
rhetoric of holy war. Give credit to Pope John XXIII for linking up
the rhetoric of Crusades with the rhetoric of the Cold War. In a conversation
with reporters from Time< magazine in August 1962, the pope said he
wanted to stop the holy war against Communism. The reporters were shocked. For
some time now, the Church had been a bulwark against Communism. The phrase had
become a cliché. Pope Pius XI had written an encyclical in 1937
condemning "Atheistic Communism." His successor, Pius XII, ordered up
extra prayers at the end of every Mass around the world "for the conversion
of Russia." Now another pope was saying he wanted to stop that. La
crociata. Pope John tasted the word, then spat it out like an unripe olive.
La crociata, non si fa piu. "We
don't want to have any more crusades."
pope's field as a student (and he never stopped being a student) was not
theology, but history. In his last post before this one, he had served as
Patriarch of Venice, a city soaked with memories of the Crusades. This pope knew
about the Crusades, and he didn't approve. As an historian, and a pope, he knew
that the Crusades were a cover for an ecclesiastical imperialism that destroyed
the unity of the Church -- for almost a thousand years -- and ushered into the
world a narrow nationalism that has brought violence to the planet ever since.
No wonder Pope John flashed such a look of disapproval, no wonder he rolled the
words la crociata so contemptuously on his tongue.
the 20th Century, the Church had been pushing another crusade, unofficial this
time, against Communism. And this pope wanted no more of it, not in the nuclear
age, when a precipitate war could put a premature finis to the human
be sure, John XXIII said, Communism is a bad thing. But Communists are people,
too, and who knows what will happen if we deal with them as people?
papal legate to more than one country in Eastern Europe, Pope John knew a little
about the Cold War. He was trying to get Time , and (Time's readers) to see that we Americans had fallen heir
to a fallacious way of thinking consecrated by many centuries of history. This
old way of thinking is what Einstein said we had to change -- once we knew how
to make an atom bomb: our propensity to deal with the real world in overarching,
abstract categories, to think we can cleanse our own most personal fears by
scapegoating and stereotyping others, to put good names on bad actions, and to
assume that, if we have to enter a war, even a vastly destructive nuclear war,
we can emerge from it with something that we could call "a justifying
victory" -- for holy wars are not only just wars, they are justifying.
holy wars, the end -- our own noble cause, victory over absolute evil --
justifies us, and justifies any means. "I do not like to hit a
village," an American pilot in Vietnam tells an American newspaperman.
"You know you are hitting women and children. But you've got to decide that
your cause is noble and that the work has to be done." A holy war
allows us to feel good and murder while we feel good, because we do so in the
name of something good.
Naturally enough, we often use a good word as a code name to describe this
action. We call it "National Security." Or "Democracy." Or
"Americanism." Or "the American way of life." Or
"America." But this is nothing new. It was not too long ago that
Reichsmarshall Herman Goering, one of Adolph Hitler's chief lieutenants, told
his psychiatrist while he was awaiting execution by the Allies at Nuremberg, how
the Nazis had used the concept of the holy fatherland to motivate young Germans
Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why
would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his
life in a war when the best he can get out of
it is to come back to his farm in one piece?
Naturally, the common people don't want war;
neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in
America, nor for that matter in Germany. That
is understood. But after all, it is the leaders
of the country who determine the policy, and it
always a simple matter to drag the people along,
whether it is a democracy or a fascist
dictatorship or a parliament or a communist
dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people
can always be brought to do the bidding of
the leaders. That is easy. All you have to
is tell them they are being attacked and
denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism
and exposing the fatherland to danger.
word patriotism rings hollow in American ears when it is spoken by a Goering.
Are we then to throw out patriotism? No. Patriotism is part of what makes
civilization. It is a virtue that springs from our primary love of our own
families (which opens our first window of identity) and extends to a love of our
city, state or country (which helps give us our sense of collective
what about an exaggeration of patriotism that hurts us in the long run, even
hurts those patriots who know their warlike moves are done in good (even holy)
faith -- until they are caught up short by the consequences of their deeds,
blinking and wondering what happened? This is not a virtue, it's a
defect-of-a-virtue, a vice.
There is an obvious word to describe this vice: superpatriotism. But we've heard
that word so many times. We hardly even ask what it really means, or what kind
of behavior it points to.
psychologist would put superpatriotism in the category of a personality disorder
called narcissism, "an exaggerated sense of self-importance, preoccupation
with fantasies of unlimited success, and an inability to recognize the feelings
of others, who are often used for one's own self-aggrandizement."
theologian would call superpatriotism a corruption of religion, starting with a
kind of idolatry and ending with a brand of self-delusion that makes us wholly
unaware of the purposes, the motives and even the actions that determine our
Poised to invade Iraq, we tell ourselves we're going there to liberate the
people of Iraq, the very people we have held under siege for a dozen years. But
at what cost?
more than 40 years, we spent $9.3 trillion (in 1989 dollars) on the Cold War --
an arms buildup that did not contribute to our security. Now, in 2003, the same
kind of holy war may end up costing another trillion.
fact, the spending of all those trillions does not make us feel insecure.
Aside from the root fear of terrorists climbing aboard our commercial jets
armed with box cutters, aside from the fear of a nuclear exchange with North
Korea (or others), which still abides with many Americans, our running in the
arms race has produced nuclear by-products and nuclear waste that has actually
given a number of innocent bystanders leukemia (they call them
"Downwinders" near Hanford, Washington) and created a nuclear-waste
storage problem that will cost us and our grandchildren and our grandchildren's
grandchildren more trillions of dollars as they try to cope with our blunders
for hundreds of years to come.
are some cynical souls who maintain that the U.S. needs the rhetoric of holy war
for the most utilitarian of reasons: holy war is the fuel that drives the
nation's economy, for it keeps millions employed -- in the nation's war
factories, in the armed services -- where they can feel filled by both
patriotism and profit.
notion that the end of the arms race will necessarily lead to large scale and
permanent unemployment is a fallacy. As the American businessman Harold Willens
demonstrated in The Trimtab Factor, a slender volume published in 1984 at
the height of Pres. Reagan's evil empire hysteria, U.S. investment in the arts
of peace would be a far better paying proposition. Ten million dollars invested
in a missile is ten million down a rat hole. Ten million invested in education
will make a better nation for generations to come, as students today rebuild
America's cities tomorrow, reconstruct the nation's crumbling infrastructure
(roads, bridges, railroads, water and sewer systems), create new rapid rail
transit systems, clean up our lakes and rivers and streams, find cures for
cancer and AIDS, export American agricultural technology so that starving
nations can begin learning to feed themselves. The list could go on and on.
Power in today's world is economic, not military. Yet we put the label
"sacred mission" on every cockamamie kind of military hardware --
more B-1 bombers, and B-2s, too, more MIRV missiles, Midgetmans, Peacekeepers,
TOWs, more General Sherman tanks, more ELF radar, more new chemical bombs called
Bigeyes, all of which have had as much to do with profit and power as with
how do we cut through the self-delusion? We might try to gain some insight by
learning from history, or, as Elie Wiesel, our Nobel Prize winning storyteller,
would say, by exercising memory.
effect, that is what Pope John XXIII was doing when he talked with the reporters
from Time at Castel Gandolfo in August 1962. He recalled the Crusades,
and cited the Crusades as an historical disaster that we could use as a
cautionary tale for our own times. It may not be easy for Americans to see the
immediate connection. Almost by definition, people caught in a delusion do not
see, not because they cannot, but because they will not. Perhaps we can get a
better fix on who and what we are, as a nation, by looking, first, at another
delusional system, located in an empire that existed a long time ago, in a land
far far away.
The Crusaders told themselves they were taking up the Cross for Jesus.
But that was a delusion. We can see what a delusion by comparing how the
Crusading armies started out with the way they ended. They had a presumably holy
inspiration. (After all, who would challenge the vision of a pope?) Then,
acting on that inspiration, in a presumably just war, we might expect their
generals to fight fair -- keep their word, provide for prisoners, treat
innocent bystanders in humane ways. We might even expect them to work out a
truce leading to a reign of justice and peace.
the Crusades, we saw nothing of the sort.
execution and outcome, the Crusades were a series of personal and historical and
geo-political and ecclesiastical disasters, and their baneful repercussions
reverberate through the corridors of history. If Jesus had been an observer in
the front lines of the Crusades, I could hear him ask, incredulously, "You
did all this for Me?"
The People's Crusade. While Pope Urban II
made his way around France in 1095 and 1096, continuing to issue his call for
holy war, an itinerant monk from Orleans named Peter followed the beat of his
own drummer. He began urging the people to "take the cross" and follow
him to Jerusalem. Peter looked like a hermit -- he wore a gray woolen hood
and a monk's robe that flapped around his ankles -- but he spearheaded the
action of his times. He was a free lance preacher of spellbinding eloquence who
made his way by donkey through France and into the Rhineland, he and an
associate called Walter the Penniless, gathering up an army of some 15,000
peasants and bums, who felt less like peasants and bums once they were pinned
with crossed red ribbons. According to one medieval scholar, this was,
historically, "the first step in the direction of a [military]
uniform." Wearing "a uniform," they had the status of
Cruciati, which means "crossed." It was a term that was later
translated into the English word "Crusaders."
Peter's mob lived off the land, stealing its food from the farmers in the
country, begging or extorting silver from frightened Jewish merchants in the
towns. As a kind of warm-up for their anticipated battles in the East, part of
Peter's army started to massacre the first "unbelievers" they could
find, the Jews of Spier, Worms and Mainz (over objections by the local bishops,
who tried to protect several thousand of them, in vain). But these slaughters
were not enough to quench the Crusading spirit. At least 500 more Jews perished
at Mainz (including Kalonmymos, the chief rabbi), and many hundreds more as
Peter's Crusaders pursued their journey through Trier, Metz, Neuss,
Wevelinghofen, Eller and Xanten, a zig-zag course set for them by a supposedly
sacred goose, whom they followed with a kind of giddy joy.
their way to Constantinople (where Pope Urban had bid everyone gather), this
pillaging, looting, genocidal mob ran into trouble. At Semlin, the mob killed
4,000 Hungarians and captured a large store of provisions, but it went on to
lose thousands of their own in a fierce and chaotic battle with the locals on
the road between Belgrade and Sofia. Those Crusaders who were left with Peter
-- about 7,000 -- finally made it to Sofia, where an escort sent by the
Emperor Alexius met them and brought them into his city on August 1, 1096.
Others from the ragtag army kept flooding into Constantinople. The Emperor
couldn't get rid of them fast enough, and soon had them deposited across the
Bosphorus on the Asiatic shore. They marched along the coast of the Sea of
Marmora to Nicomedia, pillaging the countryside as they did so. While Peter
returned to Constantinople to seek more supplies from the Emperor, the army
split into two. One division ventured as far as Nicaea, whose Seljuk Sultan,
Kilij Arslan ibn-Suleiman, pursued them to the castle of Xerigordon and had
everyone who did not abjure Christianity slaughtered. The other division, holed
up in a port city called Cibotus and waiting for Peter to return, was itching
for action. Emboldened by a planted story that their fellows had taken Nicaea
and were already dividing the booty among themselves, this troop tumbled toward
Nicaea. Only three miles out, they were ambushed in a narrow, wooded valley. The
Turks killed some 15,000 of them, and enslaved the younger boys and girls. Some
3,000 managed to reach an old castle by the sea, and held out there until they
were rescued by a set of Byzantine battleships, which took them back to
Constantinople. And that was the end of The People's Crusade.
The First Crusade. The Emperor Alexius was understandably wary when
another crusading army started arriving from the Balkans in the spring of 1097,
but he found some measure of relief to learn that they were fairly well
organized under the general command of Adhemar, bishop of Le Puy, and of four
other leaders, mostly the French and Normans who had been commissioned by Urban
II. Alexius had them stay outside the city, allowing a half dozen at a time
inside. He heaved a sigh of relief when this rowdy horde crossed the Bosphorus
a force of more than 100,000, they conquered Nicaea, Dorylaeum, Antioch and,
finally, in July 1099, Jerusalem. They invaded the Temple itself, on horseback,
riding through blood which splashed to their knees and bridle-reins, and forced
the few Saracens who survived to carry the corpses out of the city, pile them up
and burn them. The stench clung to the air of the city for months.
the leaders went the spoils. Most of the conquerors settled in, and settled down
as colonials in what they called "Outre-mer" -- the land beyond
the sea. They developed a tolerance for the native Syrians, who remained
Moslems, and even intermarried with them, and marveled at the fact that peoples
whom the pope had told them were "estranged from God" said public
prayers five times a day to the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob -- and
of Jesus, whom Mohammed, the founder of Islam, had revered as a prophet.
The Second Crusade. By 1144, however, some forty years later, a new and
powerful Moslem leader took back Edessa, one of the Syrian cities that had been
conquered by the soldiers of the First Crusade. The news triggered a Second
Crusade, proclaimed by Pope Eugenius III.
Louis VII, king of France, answered the call, and Bernard of Clairvaux preached
the necessity of a new expedition, but it came to nought. The Crusaders took an
overland route through the Balkans, looting and pillaging as the members of the
People's Crusade had done, and molesting even Eastern Christians. The future
Frederick Barbarossa is said to have destroyed a Byzantine monastery and
slaughtered its monks. Odo de Deuil, a French monk with the army, reported that
the Byzantines "were judged not to be Christians, and the Franks considered
killing them a matter of no importance." Again, the Crusaders looted
the suburbs of Constantinople, and a fiery Cistercian, Godfrey, bishop of
Langers, tried to persuade the French leaders to storm the city, which was
"Christian only in name, not in fact." The Crusaders stayed in
Constantinople for three weeks, then moved on to Asia Minor, laid siege Damascus
but failed to take it. In 1148, they left the Syrian shore, blaming their
failure on the Byzantines for not helping them subdue the Saracens.
Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, and a Middle Eastern scholar, bewailed the
Byzantine Empire's lack of zeal for the holy war. In this, he was joined by
Suger of St. Denis, the large Benedictine abbey near Paris, Bernard of
Clairvaux, a leader of the Cistercians, and Odo de Deuil (who succeeded Suger as
abbot at St. Denis). Their sermons indicated they were less interested in
routing the Moslems than waging another kind of holy war, against the Christians
The Third Crusade. Thirty nine years later, Saladin, leader of a new,
unified Moslem kingdom, proclaimed his own jihad against the Latin
Kingdom of Jerusalem, whose leader, Count Raymond III of Tripoli, chose to do
battle with him on a rocky hill with two summits near the Sea of Galilee, a
place called the Horns of Hattin. On a blistering hot July 4, 1187, the
Saladin's forces surrounded the entire military force, slaughtered most of the
army and sold the survivors (and their families) to the slave markets and harems
of Aleppo. On October 2, Saladin forced the capitulation of Jerusalem itself, 88
years after it was so bloodily taken by the Frankish warriors of the First
victors were "correct and humane," according to Steven Runciman, the
foremost historian of the Crusades. "Not a building was looted," wrote
Runciman, "nor a person injured." Saladin allowed the Christians to
buy their freedom. But when he saw two columns streaming out of the city, one
able to afford the ransom, the other heading into slavery, Saladin and his
lieutenants set many hundreds free; they also released every captive husband,
and gave silver from their treasury to widows and orphans. Runciman said that
Saladin's "mercy and kindness were in strange contrast to the Christian
conquerors of the First Crusade."
Orthodox Christians remained in Jerusalem, welcoming the tolerance of the
Moslems after the ecclesiastical imperialism of the conquering Latins, who had
forced their Latin language and ritual on them, certain not only that they would
have a better life, but that pilgrims from the West could continue to visit the
Holy Places, unmolested, and venerate the relic of the True Cross, as they had
been permitted to do for the four centuries preceding the First Crusade.
didn't take long for the bad news of Jerusalem's fall to travel to Rome. It was
particularly bad news for the pope, because he would be collecting taxes in
Jerusalem no longer. Indeed, that pope, Urban III, died of shock, and his
successor, Pope Gregory VIII, quickly called for another expedition.
May of 1191, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, now almost 70, was
leading the largest crusading army yet assembled, overland, and the kings of
both England and France, Philip II Augustus and Richard the Lion-heart, who had
been fighting each other over disputed lands in France, were coming on, too, by
this Crusade, too, would end ignominiously. On a very hot day in an icy Turkish
stream, Barbarossa drowned and the bulk of his army turned back home. No one
could say whether Barbarossa had fallen in the stream and been taken down by his
armor, or whether he had leapt willingly from his horse and died from the shock
of the cold water, or drowned in a current that was too swift.
Richard and Philip laid siege to the principal port city of Acre, an almost
impregnable castle, took it over and agreed with Saladin in Jerusalem on terms
of a peace treaty. Richard and Philip would accept a ransom of 200,000 gold
pieces and the return by Saladin of his Christian prisoners and of the True
Cross; in turn, they would release their Saracen prisoners at Acre.
Richard Coeur de Lion grew impatient with the negotiations and fearful of his
old enemy, King Philip, who, claiming illness, returned to France. Richard had
to remain, to bicker with Saladin over the gold-and-prisoner exchange. One day,
in a fit of pique over a delay in negotiations, he had 2,700 Moslem survivors of
the garrison at Acre slaughtered -- soldiers, wives and children.
Richard then left Acre for an assault on Jerusalem. Saladin's forces skirmished
with Richard's right up the coast to a wide plain at Arsuf, just north of Jaffa,
where Richard's cavalry routed the Saracen bowmen. Richard re-captured Jaffa,
but was reluctant to press on to Jerusalem. If he took the Holy City, what
then? His Crusaders would fulfill their vows and return home. Could the
remaining forces of the old Latin kingdom hold out against the united might of
Islam? He doubted it.
Richard fought and won one more ferocious battle outside the walls of Jaffa,
then entered into a treaty with Saladin (who had so admired Richard's courage in
that last battle that he sent him two fresh horses so he could go on
According to the treaty, the Moslems would remain in control of the Holy City
(and try to maintain peace between the querulous Christian prelates of East and
West). Queen Isabella and King Henry of Champagne, the nephew of Coeur de Lion,
would carry on as rulers over the Latin kingdom at Acre. And Richard, sick from
fever and from the news that his evil brother John was plotting against him,
would return home to England. On his way back, he was captured in Austria and
held for a huge ransom, then spent the last five years of his life fighting for
his inheritance in France. He never contemplated another Crusading journey to
Runciman, Coeur de Lion was "a bad son, a bad husband and a bad king, but a
gallant and splendid soldier." In retrospect, he was the epitome of a holy
warrior: a man who could order the massacre of innocents without a qualm, and
violate his word with the same aplomb -- because he was sure of the
rightness of his cause, to rescue Jerusalem and its holiest relic, the remnant
of the True Cross, a hunk of wood which may or may not have been the timber
soaked with the blood of his crucified Lord, but the very thought of which was
enough to bring tears of religious consolation to the same eyes that flashed at
the sight of an infidel's blood.
The Fourth Crusade. Another unmitigated disaster -- for the
Crusading idea, for the cause of Christian unity, for Christendom itself. Pope
Innocent III, barely 37 when he was elected pope in 1198, gave the call for this
Crusade, urging those who were able to hurry to the Jerusalem, and those who
were not able to contribute money. Each Crusader, each donor might expect full
remission of his sins for giving "aid to his Creator and Redeemer."
Buying remission of one's sins meant that the buyer could, he was told, go
straight to heaven upon his death, without a stopover in Purgatory. The Church
called these cancellations of punishment due to sin "indulgences."
The popes who followed Innocent used the proceeds from these indulgences
to build their Roman monuments. The opulence of one of them, St. Peter's in
Rome, would later enrage a visiting Augustinian monk named Martin Luther. The
experience had more than a little to do with Luther's resolve to begin an
overdue ecclesiastical reform. And so, though holy war became "the health
of the state" for the popes, it also contributed to the dismemberment of
the Church -- it brought on the Protestant Reformation.
Crusade's "aid to the Redeemer" took the form of murder, rape and the
destruction of the largest, richest city in Christendom. Instead of proceeding
to attack Saladin in Egypt, as planned, the men of the Fourth Crusade became
entangled in the commercial and political intrigues that then raged between the
two most powerful cities of that time, Constantinople and Venice. Egged on by
Venetian business interests, they ended up invading and destroying
Constantinople, which had served as the capital of Christian civilization for
nine centuries. They melted down or carted away most of its art treasures, raped
or killed several thousand citizens, who were not Turks but Christians, and
illustrated, not only the irony of the term "holy war," but the greed
that masked the pious declarations. Once they had made their plunder, they
forgot their holy war (helped in this by Peter Capuano, the pope's legate, who
absolved everyone from their vow to go to Jerusalem).
Venetians (who had negotiated for three-eighths of the booty in return for their
assistance) had good enough taste to snatch some of the more spectacular art
treasures stolen from Santa Sofia and two imperial palaces and take them back to
Venice, where many of the treasures, including two magnificent bronze horses,
can still be seen today.
Frank and Flemish soldiers preferred to melt down their share of the city's
priceless bronzes and turn them into ingots. Then they went on a tear for three
days. According to Runciman, "They rushed in a howling mob down the streets
and through the houses, snatching up everything that glittered and destroying
everything they could not carry, pausing only to murder or to rape, or to break
open the wine-cellars for their refreshment." They gutted the great church
of Santa Sofia, set a prostitute to singing ribald songs on the throne of the
patriarch, ravished nuns in their convents."
Their Christian devotion took an apparent holiday -- but only for a time. After
their orgy was over, they got back in good grace with themselves by gathering up
all the sacred relics they could find. The holiest warriors, the prelates,
abbots and bishops who were the chaplains of the Crusade, seemed the most
conscientious collectors. Martin, a Cistercian abbot and one of the original
preachers of this Crusade, returned to his Alsatian abbey with an arm of St.
James, part of the head of St. Cyprian, the stone on which Jacob rested, a
portion of the True Cross and some drops of Christ's Precious Blood. The bishop
of Soissons came home with the arm of John the Baptist, the head of St. Stephen,
and (he claimed) the very finger which doubting Thomas had poked into the side
of His Lord. Fragments of the True Cross ended up in England (at Bromholm in
Norfolk), Germany (at Limburg an der Lahn), and France (at the Benedictine abbey
of Corbie). Conrad, bishop of Halberstadt near Magdeburg, returned to Germany
with some Cross fragments and some drops of Christ's Blood, and pieces of
Christ's burial linens. Cardinal Peter Capuano, a papal legate, took the entire
body of St. Andrew home with him to Amalfi.
Several of the Crusaders each ended up believing he had come into possession of
the skull of John The Baptist. But that was hardly less of a marvel than the
possession of one of Christ's eyelashes; it was part of a store of relics that
were given by the emperor Henry to the abbey of Clairvaux. Christ's full Crown
of Thorns landed in the vault of a Venetian banker (as collateral on a loan to
Baldwin II, whom the Venetians had crowned as emperor of Constantinople) and it
was purchased a year later by St. Louis, king of France, along with some
Cross-fragments and the Holy Lance that had pierced Christ's side; in 1245, the
king enshrined them in the Church of Saint-Chapelle in Paris, and later
distributed pieces of the treasures to other churches in Europe.
first, the pope was delighted with the news of Constantinople's fall, as relayed
in a note from King Baldwin, who told Innocent he was a loyal son of the Church,
that he had taken Constantinople for the West, and had even introduced the Latin
liturgy there. Innocent pronounced this "a splendid miracle." He
called on all men to support Baldwin and expressed his hope that the conquest of
Constantinople would help in the liberation of the Jerusalem.
then the pope heard further details about the sack of the city. He was furious.
He said the Crusaders had procured for the West the wrath of Byzantines forever,
and he blamed his own cardinal-legate, Peter Capuano, for blessing the attack
and then absolving the Crusaders from their vow to fight in the Jerusalem. At
least that was the official story.
Perhaps Peter Capuano understood the pope's real intentions better than the pope
did. Innocent III knew what time it was -- time for the popes to become monarchs
(a process set in motion by his predecessors, starting with Gregory VII). It was
Gregory VII who had uncovered some ancient documents called the Isidorian
Decretals (they were nothing but forgeries, as modern scholars have proven) to
claim spiritual supremacy for himself and all his successors over the patriarchs
of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, as well as temporal
dominion over Rome and the entire Western Empire. Urban II, a
protégé of Gregory VII, went on to demonstrate the utility of holy
war as an instrument of papal, temporal power.
Innocent III ran the idea into the ground. By most accounts, Innocent III, Lando
da Sessa, was one of the greatest of the popes. But those accounts were produced
by scholars who were using old, triumphalist norms. Since Vatican II, Catholics
who consider themselves as part of a servant church would have to see Innocent
III as an arrogant elitist who was in love with abstractions. He had the best
family connections in Rome. He studied law at Bologna, and philosophy and
theology at Paris, and his vast learning compelled him to inaugurate a
heresy-hunting mechanism called the Inquisition, and write laws that required
the Jews of Rome to wear a distinctive garb, stay off the streets during Holy
Week, and disqualify themselves for any public office that would give them
jurisdiction over Christians.
was a pope who enhanced his power by enlisting his troops (or the troops of
those who found an alliance with the pope useful to them) in a series of holy
wars against other of his enemies -- far removed from the Moslem world. In
1209, Innocent encouraged King Waldemar II of Denmark to take part in a holy war
against some idol-worshipping tribes along the Baltic, this on the heels of a
successful crusade, in 1207 and 1208, against the Albigensian heretics in the
Languedoc Province of southern France. He called these heretics "little
foxes... forever destroying the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts," and urged
King Philip II of France to "eliminate" them and "vindicate the
injury to Jesus Christ." Philip's forces did so, taking their orders
from a papal legate, the Cistercian abbot of Citeaux. They wiped out the
Cathars -- and, for good measure, any other Christians who happened to be
Edmund Stillman and William Pfaff quote an almost passionless account of the
atrocity by Fernand Niel, a modern French historian, that illustrates the
righteousness of the savagery that attended this Crusade:
The Crusaders departed from Montpelier on the twentieth of July 1209 and in
due course their advance guard drew up before the walls of Beziers. Through the
intermediary of their bishop, the town was ordered to surrender up the Cathar
heretics dwelling in their midst; but the inhabitants refused, and the Crusader
army took up its positions for a regular siege.... The massacre began. The
terrified townspeople took refuge in the churches, the priests displayed their
sacred habits, the church bells sounded, but nothing could stem the fury of the
Crusaders. Seven thousand persons were massacred in the single church of the
Madeleine. Pillage succeeded massacre, and then arson. The city burned for two
days. No one was spared. Heretics, Catholics, women, infants, all were
The leaders of the Catholic forces applauded this miraculous victory and
perhaps exaggerated the number of victims. As many as 100 thousand have been
claimed; but 30 thousand would seem a more reasonable number. It is certain,
however, that all the inhabitants were slain. And in the course of the massacre
occurred an event which has provoked extended discussion. When Arnaud-Amalric,
Abbot of Citeaux, was asked how the heretics might be distinguished from the
faithful... he replied: "Burn them all. God will know His own!"
The Children's Crusade. This was a zealous time. Even children came down
with the crusading fever, like chicken pox or the measles. In 1212, a
12-year-old shepherd boy named Stephen started preaching his own crusade in
France. He said that Christ himself had appeared to him while he was tending his
sheep and urged him to lead a band of children to Jerusalem. Thousands of
youngsters from France and Germany, their numbers growing as the army marched
along, set out to free the Holy Sepulcher.
group ended up in Marseilles. When the sea did not part for them, as they
believed it would, they turned to two kindly Marseilles businessmen, who
volunteered to put seven ships at their disposal, and to carry them, free of
charge, for the glory of God, to Palestine. Two of the ships were lost with all
hands off Sardinia, but the children on the other five boats made it safely to
their pre-determined destination, a slave market in Bougie, on the Algerian
others died crossing the Alps on foot, and another band of children that made it
as far as the Adriatic Sea (only to be disappointed when that sea did not part
for them) were lost or set upon in their wandering journey back to the
fate of these children, victims not of a holy war but of its holy words, and
victims, too, of the unholy greed and unholy rapacity that seem to ooze in and
fill the cracks of every warlike structure, should have triggered a reappraisal
of the rhetoric, particularly by the pope, who was the principal spokesman for
holy war in these decades. It did not. Pope Innocent III saw everything and saw
nothing. He received one contingent of the children who had gotten as far as
Rome, told them he was moved by their piety, and advised they go home. But he
did nothing to dampen the general zeal. They should grow up, he said, then
fulfill their sacred vows to fight for the Holy Cross.
Historians tell us that few of them ever got home again. But Innocent III had
other concerns. In 1213, he had his people out recruiting for another
The Fifth Crusade. Innocent III proclaimed
this Crusade at the Fourth Lateran Council. He designated preachers,
commissioned troubadours, put embargos on the transport of military supplies to
the Moslems, and attempted to settle a feud between Pisa and Genoa, cities that
had been growing rich on Crusade business for more than a century (and who were
now growing greedy). The pope took ill on that journey, and died at Perugia on
July 16, 1216.
his successor, Honorius III, was more than eager to carry on Innocent's foreign
policy, this despite two pieces of information that should have given him
First, recruiting for the Crusade was not going well in Europe. In France, papal
legates were scraping the bottom of the barrel, signing up old men and children,
lepers, cripples and women of ill fame. A large Scandinavian expedition dwindled
when King Ingi II of Norway, who had "taken the Cross" (that is,
donned the uniform of a Crusader), died. King Andrew II of Hungary, who took the
Cross in the hopes that he could assume control over the Kingdom of Jerusalem
(his queen was the niece of the Latin emperor of Constantinople), was begging
off because of civil war in his own land.
Second, one of the pope's legates in Palestine reported that the local Latins
had little enthusiasm for a Crusade. Two decades of peace had been good for
business -- for both the Franks and the Moslems. Merchandise was filling
the warehouses of the eastern ports, and there was a fine future for the
Mediterranean trade, if only there was peace.
no. The pope wanted war. Finally, by the fall of 1217, he had an army ready,
under the bumbling leadership of a tactless Spanish cardinal named Pelagius
Galvani. But this Crusade, too, seemed off-target. Instead of attaining its
stated goal, the ever-recurring theme of "freeing Jerusalem," this
Crusade had an aim that would today be described as "geo-political."
Translation: the pope wanted Egypt. It was the Moslems' richest province,
and the base for their fleet in the Mediterranean that was preying on trading
vessels from Genoa and Venice.
Crusaders spent two years in battles and skirmishes near the mouth of the Nile,
losing thousands of men to the swords of the Moslems, to storms and a plague,
and to their own ineptness. Their effort to take over the walled city of
Damietta, two miles up the Nile's east bank, with a large wooden tower mounted
on two ships, reads like the script for a Max Sennett comedy.
August 1219, a simple, gentle Christian friar named Francis of Assisi showed up
to witness the rout of an Italian regiment attacking the Sultan's camp near
Damietta. Brother Francis undertook a peace mission to the Sultan al-Kamil, who
received him kindly. Runciman says the saint's intervention was not needed,
"for al-Kamil was himself inclined toward peace." They called a
truce, and al-Kamil made an offer the Crusaders couldn't refuse: if they would
evacuate Egypt, he would return to them what was left of the True Cross, and
they could have Jerusalem, all of central Palestine and Galilee.
French and German Crusaders were all for it. Cardinal Pelagius said no --
on the grounds that it was "wrong to come to terms with the infidel."
He had other, more mundane reasons. He wanted to secure Damietta as a base for
the trading interests of the city-states in the Italian boot. He took it, on
November 5, 1219, when his scouts discovered the entire garrison was enfeebled
by a plague, but sat there for almost two years, trying to referee the bickering
among his multi-national forces, waiting for reinforcements from Frederick II of
Germany -- and again turning down an offer of Jerusalem from the Sultan. When
some of the reinforcements did arrive (but with Frederick at their head),
Pelagius led a mighty force up the Nile toward Cairo -- some 630 ships,
5,000 knights, 4,000 archers, and 40,000 infantrymen.
Overconfident in their sheer numbers, they advanced too far up the river without
covering their rear. Once they realized they were surrounded and outmanned, they
attempted a chaotic retreat down a swollen Nile and along its flooded banks,
lost thousands of men, and sued for peace. The Fifth Crusade was over.
Runciman writes: "...nothing had been gained and much lost, men,
resources and reputations. Fear of the Christians from the West raised a new
wave of fanaticism in Islam... fresh disabilities were put upon the local
Christians, both Melkites and Copts."
go on? Subsequent Crusades came to similarly disastrous ends -- and it
didn't seem to matter whether the leaders were saints or sinners. The Sixth
Crusade under Frederick II (quarreling all the while with the pope, over who had
the say-so) led to no major battles, and ended in 1229 with a 10-year-truce in
Jerusalem. The Seventh Crusade, which began in 1248 under the leadership of the
saintly King Louis IX of France, ended two years later in Egypt with the capture
of the king himself.
forces took charge in Islam, replacing the chivalry of Saladin with the savagery
of the Mamluks, who conquered most of the cities in the Kingdom of Jerusalem and
massacred most of the Christians there. This brought pleas for aid from the
West. Louis, who felt responsible for the collapse, launched the Eighth Crusade
in 1267. It ended two years later in North Africa with Louis's death by
Others would attempt to launch other Crusades. The last Crusading force to do
battle, more than 100,000 men, the largest Crusading army ever, gathered from
all of Western Europe and marched into Bulgaria. But this army fell to the
Turks, and almost all of them were slaughtered in battle on some hills near
Nicopolis, some 200 miles up the Danube River from the Black Sea.
1463, after the final fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Pope Pius II made the
last holy call, but none of the Christian kings or princes of the West would
answer. The pope ended up financing and leading the Crusade himself, but he
found there were few to lead. On his way to Ancona, where he intended to join
his papal fleet, he found the roads filled with his sailors and soldiers, who
had deserted their ships, fleeing home on foot. He went on to inspect his empty
galleys, and died gazing at them on August 14, 1464.
Thus, the results of holy war. Pope after pope, from Urban II (1088-1099) to
Gregory X (1271-1276) to Pius II (1458-1464), might have wondered about the
morality of these foreign wars -- there being nothing redemptive about
their outcomes -- if only they had not convinced themselves that they were
fighting "for Christ." But, given that noble goal, they kept
plunging ahead, urging sacrifice on their people, goodly nobles and commons
alike, while their own power grew and grew.
people paid the costs. But it was easy for the crusading popes to overlook these
as they counted the benefits to themselves and to the papacy. The popes who soon
followed them would give silent testimony to these benefits by the grandeur of
their lives. These were the Renaissance popes, the Medicis and the Borgias and
the della Roveres and the Farneses, who lived more splendidly than any king,
and, as vicars of Christ on earth, with more honor. Surely they must have paused
every now and then to tell God how grateful they were.
Crusades were "nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of
God." The judgment is a harsh one, but it comes from a man most qualified
to make it. He was the Englishman Steven Runciman, knighted in the mid-1950s for
his marvelous, scholarly, readable, three-volume history of the Crusades. To
Runciman, the Crusades were a deception, and one that was all the more radical
because it was probably not a knowing, cynical one, but more on the order of a
self-deception, which often leads to self-righteousness. To the self-righteous,
any of a number of righteous deeds can follow.
first come the righteous words, the words that make a war holy. What
words? Consider for a moment more the speech of Pope Urban II at Clermont,
to see how war becomes holy. First, he establishes the enemy as evil, or,
better, godless. Then, he identifies the cause -- killing a godless enemy
-- as God's will. Doing God's will will make his soldiers holy; in fact,
he says, if any loses his life, he will save it. With a papal blessing, he will
go straight to heaven. He will signalize his godliness by taking a vow
-- and symbolize it by wearing Christ's cross.
enemy is evil on several counts. In the first place, he has seized a place the
pope calls "holy" -- holy because it was land that Christ, the
God-become-man, had walked on and watered with his redeeming blood. For that
reason, the Moslems are "an accursed race, a barbarous people, estranged
these people were only accursed because the pope has called them so.
they were not so barbarous in the popular, pejorative sense of the word, that
is, cruel or savage, as were the pope's own troops. This was simply a case of
papal ignorance. In fact, the people of the Middle East were, at the time, more
highly cultured than the people of Western Europe. The Egyptians were wearing
spun cotton and playing stringed instruments centuries before the Normans were
invading England, clad in animal skins and beating on drums. And the papyri of
scholars and mathematicians and philosophers of Egypt were already becoming
brittle when Thomas Aquinas started to write his Summa. Even in war, the
best of the Arab generals were far more compassionate than the best of the
if Urban II was thinking barbarous in its primary sense -- it means
"foreign" or "different" -- he was telling his audience
something far more than he intended, not about the Arabs, but about himself. Of
course the Moslems were different. That shouldn't have made them sinful, and
need not have marked them for slaughter. What made them different? Principally,
said Urban, their godlessness. But they're weren't godless at all; they just
didn't describe God as the pope did. They did not understand (and did not
believe in) the pope's Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
is a common Church teaching that no one can believe without the gift of faith.
Pope Urban II presumably knew that in 1095. And yet, he urged his Christian
knights to go to Jerusalem and kill the ungodly -- those who hadn't been given
the gift. Killing an ungodly enemy: that was one thing that made a war
only was the cause holy, fighting in that cause was supposed to make its
warriors holy, too. The pope made that clear from the start, by promising the
Crusaders eternal life, the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, for
their efforts. To medieval citizens, so imbued with the faith by practically
everything in their culture, this was the ultimate, lasting reward.
"The temporal punishment due to sin" meant not only the penance
imposed by this or that confessor in this life, it also meant a stay in
Purgatory, a place of suffering just like the sufferings of Hell, until a
person's sins had been burned away. In the peculiar economy of salvation taught
in the Church until late in the 20th Century, popes could commute that sentence
in part or in whole. They gave indulgences of seven days, or 30 days, or seven
years, "time off" for uttering certain prayers or performing certain
penances. Or they went whole hog with a plenary indulgence; that abrogated the
entire sentence -- whatever that was, and whatever that meant. And they told
themselves they could do this because they had control of the treasury of grace
Modern Catholics are embarrassed by this calculating, egocentric approach to
Christian destiny. But medieval popes claimed the power of the keys to this
heavenly treasure of merit (which is why tourists in Rome see the crossed keys
in every papal coat of arms). As successors to the chief of the Apostles, the
popes relied on the words of Jesus Christ Himself, who told Peter, punning on
the Latin word for rock, petrus, "Upon this rock I will build my
church. Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. Whose sins you shall
absolve, they are absolved." With power like that, they could promise the
Crusaders a quick ticket to heaven. For a military hero, that was better, much
better than a Congressional Medal of Honor.
the Crusaders learned that holy wars were holy because they had 1) a holy cause,
and 2) a holy end. What else? The Crusaders also took something that sounded
very much like an oath of office: a holy vow. "Taking the Cross," as
they put it, would make them true "soldiers of Christ." Runciman says,
"For three centuries there was hardly a potentate in Europe who did not at
some time vow with fervor to go on the Holy War. Jerusalem was on the mind of
every man and woman."
Jerusalem was the battle cry. It was at the heart of the Crusading idea. And it
would continue to inflame the heart of every Crusader, even and especially the
purest Christian hearts -- such as the little boys and girls of the
Children's Crusade who set out singing the Salve Regina at the top of their
lungs and ended, the luckiest ones, serving as the slaves and concubines of the
men most able to buy them from their captors.
scholars have pointed out that there was a good deal of ambiguity about the term
Jerusalem. Did the Crusaders think they were heading toward an earthly or a
heavenly city? Some of the rhetoric would seem to indicate they were being
sold on the idea that "salvation" would be there waiting for them upon
their arrival in Jerusalem. Others may have believed that their Lord Jesus
Christ himself would be waiting for them there, and that they would have a front
row seat for the ultimate in street theater: the Second Coming of Christ. That
was the promise. The reality was different. Few of the Crusaders, over three
centuries, ever saw Jerusalem. A majority of them died in battles far from the
for those who did fulfill their holy vow, to get to Jerusalem, what, pray, did
they find? A visit to a cave, enshrined in a crumbling Church of the Holy
Sepulcher. Jesus, of course, was not there, He was risen. Someone there may have
reminded them that the same Jesus who founded His Church on the rock of Peter
had also said, "My kingdom is not of this world."
So, the Crusades were like any war: contention,
chaos, killing -- all for power and honor and riches, for Eros and Thanatos, or,
for the most banal reason of all: as an antidote to boredom. Nothing makes a war
holy -- and the more destructive that war (and the less it achieves its
stated goal), the easier it is to see the holiness of that war as a
how can anyone discern the difference? Ignatius Loyola suggested a method in his
Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, part of what he called his Spiritual
Exercises. Does an inspiration come from the good spirit, he asked, or the
bad? The Ignatian solution came in a kind of metaphor: he reminded his
retreatants that some scorpions are poisonous, some not. We find out which are
which, he said, by examining the cauda serpentina, the scorpion's tail.
In other words, we see where the inspiration leads. The inspiration for the
Crusades led to rape and pillage along the trail, nothing holy in the so-called
Holy Land, and a radical change in the papacy itself -- now not a primacy
of service but a primacy of power, with the humble successor of Peter sitting in
a palace on the Tiber, surrounded by sycophants and the great wealth that came
his way from those who thought they could buy redemption from their sins.
Returning to the Cold War and looking for its cauda serpentina , we might
see that that holy war killed millions, including many innocent
bystanders, led the whole world to the brink of annihilation, created a good
deal of ancillary damage – and cost both sides a total of $9.3 trillion.
The part of it that the U.S. was responsible for almost destroyed countries like
Vietnam. Meanwhile, our inner cities in the U.S. and the people who inhabited
them suffered a horrible, consequent neglect that they have yet to recover
knows what our quick victory over pitifully weak forces will lead to? Surely
this, that the rest of the world will tremble before a supernation that can grab
off almost total domination of global energy and global communications and
global trade – in short, take whatever it wants. The United Nations will
seem more irrelevant than ever. Our children will learn that might makes right.
Some Americans will no doubt fatten on the war. Others will have died, often
enough under friendly fire. No one will receive so much as an indulgence for his
or her sins. But some may glory in the crossed red ribbons they get from