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Sarah Lindsay

The Crusades

Peter the Hermit
Peter the Hermit leading troops to Jerusalem (British Library MS Egerton 1500, fol. 45v, c. 1325-1350) | public domain | via Encyclopedia Britannica

So far in this series on white supremacy and the middle ages, we’ve established that medieval Europe was not “dark” but rather a vital building block of western culture — which means that we cannot simply abandon the period to white supremacists. Additionally, on Monday I sketched out the problems with the idea that the middle ages were racially homogenous, problems that relate both to the historical facts and to our projection of post-Enlightenment race onto the medieval period. Today, I conclude with one of the thornier events of the middle ages: the crusades.

Alt-right movements both in America and in Europe tend to be anti-Islam, using images and phrases (like deus vult) from the medieval crusades to underscore a commitment to protecting western culture from outside threats. The only problem with this is the fact that the medieval crusades weren’t about protecting Europe from outside threats.

It will be helpful to start with a brief timeline of the rise of Islam and the crusades. Muhammad, whose visions in the early 7th century became the Qu'ran, founded a religious community that quickly united the tribes of the Arabian peninsula. Neither the Byzantine Empire to the north and west or the Sasanian Empire to the east had ever had much interest in controlling the arid Arabian peninsula, so Muhammad and his successors filled a power vacuum in the area and quickly began to expand. In the first 150 years of Islam, Arabic tribes conquered across North Africa, into Europe in the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal), to the east in the old Persian empire, and northward into the Byzantine empire.

As rapidly as the Arabic empire spread, it did not make it into western Europe beyond the Iberian peninsula and the island of Sicily. In the late eighth century, Umayyad incursions into modern-day France were decisively rebuffed by French rulers. After this point, Muslim rulers controlled most of the Iberian peninsula (which they named Al-Andalus) but no longer attempted to invade western Europe across the Pyrenees. And while the history of medieval Spain could be an entire post, it’s worth noting that even as Christians reclaimed parts of Spain the Christian/Muslim divide was seldom clear or simplistic. Often Christian rulers warred against their Muslim neighbors, but just as often they allied with Muslim rulers to fight a common enemy — Christian or Muslim. In other words, the narrative of Muslim conquest and Christian resistance does not match the more complicated reality in medieval Spain.

Cordoba cathedral
Cathedral in Córdoba, Spain; originally built as a mosque in the late 8th century | © 2015 Berthold Werner | via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

The island of Sicily, off the toe of the boot of the Italian peninsula, was also controlled at least partially by Muslim rulers for about 250 years between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Because of its desirable position for trade across the Mediterranean, Sicily has been controlled by most of the key players in the region at one point or another; in the medieval period, it was held by the Goths, then the Byzantines, then Muslim rulers, then the Norman French before becoming a point of contention between the pope, the Holy Roman emperors, and Spanish rulers. In other words, Arabic rulers were one of a multitude of people groups who sought to control the island and its trade — and for Muslim rulers, Sicily was not a launching point for European invasion but a key shipping location in the busy commercial world of the Mediterranean.

In short, after the eighth century the Latin west — the old western part of the Roman empire — was not under serious threat of invasion and conquest by Arabic Muslims.1 However, the old eastern half of the Roman empire, now known as the Byzantine empire, saw a different situation. Because it bordered the Arabian peninsula and in the early middle ages controlled trade routes in what we call the Middle East, the Byzantine empire experienced frequent conflict with the expanding Arabic empire. Over the centuries of the middle ages, the Byzantine world contracted under the initial Arabic expansion, then expanded under two centuries of strong rulers, then contracted again, slowly, until it was overtaken by the Ottoman Turks in 1455.

So in the late eleventh century, on the eve of the crusades, it was the Byzantine empire rather than the Latin west that faced Arabic invaders. The Byzantine period of expansion and strong rulers had come to an end and, in the chaos, Arabic rulers attempted to expand into Byzantium.2 Emissaries from Alexios I, the Byzantine emperor, came to pope Urban II in 1095 to ask for help defending the city of Constantinople. Urban II seized on this opportunity and, on November 27, 1095 he promulgated the first crusade in a famous speech.

However, Urban II and Alexios I had significantly different visions of what form western aid to the Byzantines should take. Alexios I wanted soldiers, who he would pay; the Byzantine armies like modern armies worked on a payment model. However, western European armies were feudal and land ownership was the foundation of wealth; soldiers were either rewarded with plunder from victories or, for the nobility, granted land for service. Cash payment would not appeal to the nobles who led the armies who fought for land. Alexios I would not have given his land to western European nobles. Urban II not only knew this, but was also deeply concerned about the violent squabbling between Christian rulers over arable land — most of which had been claimed by the late eleventh century.3

Thus, rather than calling for volunteers to defend Constantinople as Alexios I had requested, Urban II called for soldiers to conquer the Holy Land. He thus addresses, in some way, the problem of Arabic incursions into Byzantium while also giving the nobility of Europe a new opportunity to gain territory without fighting against other Christians. It’s certainly overly simplistic to see only mercenary reasons for the crusades, since the idea of regaining the Holy Land from the Muslims held significant emotional power as well. But under Urban II’s vision of the crusades, most crusaders had a variety of motives for taking part: defeating Muslims, having knightly adventures, gaining land and treasure, earning a plenary indulgence for sins.

It’s also possible that Urban II hoped to reunite the western church and the eastern church, which had diverged in language, theology and hierarchy as the Roman empire dissolved in the west but only formally split in 1054 CE, recent history for Urban II. However, despite the first hundred years of largely successful crusading, the crusades ended up deepening divisions between the Byzantine empire and the west. The fourth crusade (1202-4) never even reached the Holy Land; instead, after becoming embroiled in political unrest in Constantinople, the unpaid western armies grew restless and plundered the city.

All of which to say: while the initial impetus for the crusades is the request from Byzantium for aid against Muslim invaders, the crusades were only partially, if at all, about defending Europe from the Muslims. In fact, shifting the objective of the first crusade from helping Constantinople to retaking the Holy Land suggests that western rulers weren’t particularly concerned about either the fate of Constantinople or keeping Byzantium as a buffer between western Europe and the Arabic empire. Were crusaders motived by the desire to defend Christendom against Muslims? Probably many were. But they also wanted to reclaim or expand Christendom, and few would have seem themselves or their kingdoms as directly threatened by Muslims.

Moreover, remember that identity categories in the middle ages, as I discussed on Monday, could be fluid, complicating European views of Islam. Most western Europeans identified as Christian, a powerful pan-European identity that also linked western and Byzantine Christians. One could not, obviously, identify as both a Christian and a Muslim, and there are plentiful works of art and literature that sharply contrast Christian and Muslim. The twelfth-century Song of Roland, for example, presents Muslims as completely evil and worshipping an unholy trinity made up of Mohammed, a demon named Termagant, and the Roman god Apollo. And when king Arthur’s rebellious nephew/incestuous son Mordred (very ahistorically) allies with Saracens (a medieval term for Muslims), this proves the depth of Mordred’s wickedness.

Saladin
Saladin, painted by Cristofano dell'Altissimo, c. 1552-68 | public domain | via Wikimedia Commons

And yet, European scholars had great respect for Arabic scholarship, particularly medical scholarship and commentaries on Aristotle. The Muslim ruler Saladin was greatly admired by the leaders of the Third Crusade — especially England’s Richard I — even as their armies battled. And in the fourteenth century, the English travel writer John Mandeville unfavorably compared Christian nobles to Muslims, who he claimed more closely adhered to the ideals of chivalry and morality in general despite their ignorance of Christianity. These examples show that, despite the large religious divide, scholarship and chivalry provided points of contact between the Christian and Muslim worlds.

My goal in today’s post has been to sketch the often complex relationship between the kingdoms of western Europe, the Byzantine empire, and the Muslim world. These relationships were not, with some notable exceptions, always peaceful and harmonious. And because religious and ethnic identities were tightly connected, it is accurate in some senses to see a conflict between Christianity and Islam. And yet the crusades also brought about closer contact between western Europe and the Arabic empire, contact that enriched European scholarship and bridged cultural divides.

It is not historically accurate to imagine medieval Europe as united against an encroaching Islamic threat, or as striving to preserve its cultural heritage in the face of outside invaders. This notion overstates a united European identity, exaggerates the threat posed by the Arabic empire, and ignores the peaceful and productive exchanges of scholarship and culture between the Christian west and Islamic east at various times during the middle ages.

The medieval period is not the best model for modern-day relationships between majority Muslim and majority Christian nations. But neither do the middle ages provide proof that Christianity and Islam are incompatible and must remain locked in combat until one or the other disappears.

history #Christianity #Islam #medieval


  1. There were periodic Arabic raids along the Mediterranean, including in Marseille and coastal cities in Italy. Like the pagan Viking raids from the north, however, these were not attempts at imperial conquest but smash and grab operations. This is not to minimize the destruction and loss of life, but it’s important to distinguish between conquest, as happened in the Spanish peninsula, and raiding.

  2. It’s worth noting that, in this same period, the Normans (who at the time ruled England and parts of Sicily from their home territories in France) were also seizing territory along the Mediterranean from the Byzantine Empire.

  3. The movements to end conflict are collectively known as the Peace and Truce of God.