By Rick Bailey
There is a new wind blowing through scholarship on the Crusades. Because of it, in a decade or two, we will probably find ourselves understanding the Crusades very differently from how we do today. Before describing this new perspective, and how it could potentially alter the way we present the gospel to Muslims, we should review the present understanding of the Crusades, with a few background comments on how we got here.
At present, there are basically two perspectives on the Crusades. The first perspective is that the Muslims were unjustified and repressive conquerors. The Crusaders were just attempting to take back lands that had been forcibly taken away from non-aggressive, peace-loving, Christians. This perspective, with minor variations, has dominated most of Western history between the time of the Crusades and the present time. Currently, it is the minority view.
The second perspective on the Crusades, which is currently the dominant view, focuses on how contrary to Jesus’ teachings it was for the Crusaders to use political and military force to try and further God’s work here on earth. The Crusades are therefore viewed as a bad thing. Christians who hold this view, often claim that the Crusades are one of the main reasons Muslims have hardened their hearts to the gospel. Some of those who hold this view have tried to formally and publicly apologize to Muslims for what their Christian ancestors did to Muslims at the time of the Crusades.
Western culture has wavered between these two perspectives for much of the last seven hundred years. At certain points, when it has suited a need, one perspective has dominated. But as society’s needs have changed, the alternative point of view has reemerged to placate the newer needs. Whichever perspective has dominated at a particular time, the reasons for the change have not been due to any efforts to actually understand what the original Crusades were all about. Instead, the focus has been on seeing how the Crusades can be enslaved to justify some more contemporary issue.
Our current emphasis on the negative understanding of the Crusades is due in large part to a three-volume book written in the early 1950s by a British author, Sir Steven Runciman. His book, A History of the Crusades, is still quite popular among general readers. Runciman’s theme was that the Crusades were about greed, colonialism, and hatred of Muslims, all covered over with a thick coat of false Christian piety. He ends his three-volume book by suggesting that the Crusaders were guilty of committing the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit.
But now, this negative outlook on the Crusades may be about to lose its dominance. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that the general Western public has, for the past few decades, been subjected to a constant barrage of news about Islamic terrorism, including against the West. While Muslim organizations, Western academics, and politicians have continued to describe these Muslim terrorists as not representative of true Islam, the seemingly never-ending drumbeat of further terrorist attacks has begun to sow doubts in the minds of the general public about whether these claims are true. And to the public, what is true about modern terrorism is very easily also assumed to be true about the past encounter with Muslims during the Crusades.
The second reason why the dominance of the negative perspective on the Crusades is under threat is because of the changed perspective in medieval scholarship mentioned above. The reason for this shift in perspective is the growing conviction among scholars that the Crusades can only be properly judged by starting with the viewpoint of their original participants. Because of this, it is now not considered acceptable—as was done throughout most of Western history—to impose our current time’s values and interests upon the Crusades. This, most medieval scholars now argue, is what Runciman did in his three-volume work. Some of the best scholars today have gone even further, and openly accuse Runciman of being deliberately deceptive in his writings on this subject.
Before discussing further what these post-Runciman scholars of the Crusades have to say, I would like to mention a good introductory source for a more in-depth reading on what the current scholarly consensus is on the Crusades. The book, edited by Thomas F. Madden, is entitled Crusades: The Illustrated History (published in 2004 at University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor). This 224-page book is written by serious scholars, but for general audiences.
In this book, two to three dozen new perspectives on the Crusades are introduced. These include such ideas as that the Crusaders’ primary motivation was Christian piety and personal salvation; that they did not see themselves as primarily having a religious conflict with Islam; that their biggest goal was to reestablish a safe pilgrimage route to Jerusalem; and that the whole Crusader movement was just an expansion of an existing cultural movement that had started hundreds of years before the formal first Crusade and ended hundreds of years after the last Crusade.
Since most of these new perspectives move more in the direction of the historically positive view of the Crusades, at first it might appear that medieval scholarship is in the process of returning to another version of that perspective. But a more careful examination of this new perspective provides considerable support for the view that current scholarship is, instead, in the process of breaking with the historic pendulum swings between good and bad views of the Crusades. This new scholarly effort is attempting to largely take positive and negative judgments of the Crusades out of our hands and replace it with a more dispassionate focus on observation as an end in itself.
The question we want to ask here is how this new perspective might change the way we talk about the Crusades with Muslims. But before we get to that question, we need to examine how effective our present apologetic use of the Crusades has been at bringing Muslims to consider the gospel message of the New Testament. These questions will be the subject of part 2 in this series.