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Yuri Koszarycz

The Influence of the Crusades

The heroic and romantic elements in this attempt to deliver the Holy Places from the Moslems still make it difficult for the Western mind to realise the disastrous character of the movement. Yet the harm it did was so great that some of the most bitter conflicts of our own time can be traced back to the mistakes of this well-intentional but ill-advised enterprise. The chief evil of the Crusades was the belief that military aggression can serve the spread of Christianity and that the sword can sometimes be more efficient than the word in the presentation of the Gospel. They lent support, too, to the idea that the robbery, torture, or murder of a someone whose religious beliefs were erroneous was not only permitted but even approved by Christian teaching. The Orthodox East, when it heard about the Crusades, felt apprehensive from the very start. The Byzantine Empire held that her army was entrusted with the sacred duty of defending her frontiers, and that Christian soldiers who laid down their lives in the battle against the infidels and barbarians had made a righteous sacrifice for a cause approved by God. But this was very different from the idea that Christian monks and soldiers, whose homes and families were not threatened, were justified in taking up arms and starting to kill others in far-away lands, in the name of the Christian religion and for the sake of controlling the land where the Saviour had lived and died and risen again.

These doubts and forebodings developed into open hostility when Eastern Christians came under the rule of the Crusaders. War is always a brutal and destructive affair, and the Crusaders did not differ much from other soldiers. When a city was captured its population naturally suffered, and it would have been too much to expect that a careful discrimination would be made between the local Christians and Moslems. Everybody was helpless before the invaders, and one's life and property were at their mercy. Once the rule of the Crusaders was firmly established it proved of no advantage to the Eastern Christians, even when compared with their bitter experience under the Moslem yoke. In many cases it was even a change for the worse, for their former conquerors had been more tolerant than Christians of the West, and had allowed the Orthodox to continue their Church life unmolested. But the Crusaders tried to convert the Orthodox to Latin Christianity, confiscating their Church buildings, imprisoning their clergy and treating them as though they professed a wholly alien religion.

For the West, the events of the Crusades began in an aura of optimism but ended with disaster and disunity for the Church. After the death of Charlemagne, the military authority of the Franks which had supported the Papacy began to decline. The Norman incursions into Italy posed a real threat to the Church and the Papacy in 1059 acknowledged its inability to face any threat from a Norman invasion. How then could the Church reassert its lessening authority over its feudal monarchs and show that it had the necessary strength to cope with internal dissent? At this time a request arrived from the Eastern emperor Alexius Commenius and Pope Urban II for assistance against encroachments by Moslem forces into the Holy Lands. Urban II, at this time in exile, called together on the faithful to mount a crusade, appealing to the spirit of faith, to regain the Holy Lands from the sacrilegious hands of Islam while drawing attention to the political benefits of such a venture. Hollister states that "the Crusades to the Holy Lands were the most spectacular and self-conscious act of Western Christian expansionism which represented a fusion of three characteristics of medieval man: piety, pugnacity, and greed" (Hollister, 162).

The Church promised instant sanctity to all participants, a promise of full pardon for one's sins, and a guarantee of eternal life. Urban and his successors, by granting indulgences, had sanctified this war as a holy war, and by 1096 the habit of "divinising" these conflicts became so well established that the Pauline metaphor of "fighting for Christ" was well interpreted as military knight service (Heer, 127). Military sacerdotal orders supposedly were based on high ideals of charity, chivalry, and medical care for those wounded in conflict, but too often these qualities were over-ridden by grand and petty political intrigues. By the time of the Fourth Crusade the papal powers had lost control over these monastic knights, leading to the excommunication of the Templars by Innocent III.

The growing animosity between the Greeks and Crusaders flamed up into open conflict at the end of the twelfth century. In 1185, the Knights captured and sacked Salonika, the second largest city of the Byzantine Empire; they conducted themselves with such complete disregard for the sanctity of Christian Churches that horror and indignation overwhelmed the whole of the Christian East. Contemporary Greek historians describe how the drunken soldiers danced on the alters of Orthodox Churches, how the sacred vessels and reserved sacrament, together with the icons, were made the object of the most revolting abuses, and how the corpses of men, women, and children were profaned by the conquerors. The Greeks were staggered by the scenes of deliberate cruelty and sacrilege, for the Moslems, their inveterate enemies, had always showed a genuine respect for places of worship.


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Copyright ©1999, Yuri Koszarycz. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.