The Crusades and Historical Ignorance


One of the tenets of our faith is to instruct the ignorant.  Thus, for the benefit of President Obama who is obviously bone ignorant of the Crusades, I am reposting this post from 2012:

The above video is a salute to Rick Santorum, former candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, for understanding the essential nature of the Crusades as a defensive reaction to Islamic aggression.  In the video below we have a rather mindless reaction to the same quote from a talking head from the liberal group Young Turks, who, judging from his comments, gained his knowledge of the Crusades from the laughably ahistorical crusader bashing flick Kingdom of Heaven (2005).


Ignorance of the depth displayed in the video above is always to be lamented, and is not unusual, as noted by Dr. Thomas Madden, one of the foremost of the scholars of the Crusades, who, over the past 40 years, have revolutionized our knowledge and understanding of that epoch:


The crusades are quite possibly the most misunderstood event in European history. Ask a random American about them and you are likely to see a face wrinkle in disgust, or just the blank stare that is usually evoked by events older than six weeks. After all, weren’t the crusaders just a bunch of religious nuts carrying fire and sword to the land of the Prince of Peace? Weren’t they cynical imperialists seeking to carve out colonies for themselves in faraway lands with the blessings of the Catholic Church? A couch potato watching the BBC/A&E documentary on the crusades (hosted by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame no less) would learn in roughly four hours of frivolous tsk-tsk-ing that the peaceful Muslim world actually learned to be warlike from the barbaric western crusaders. No wonder, then, that Pope John Paul II was excoriated for his refusal to apologize for the crusades in 1999. No wonder that a year ago Wheaton College in Illinois dropped their Crusader mascot of 70 years. No wonder that hundreds of Americans and Europeans recently marched across Europe and the Middle East begging forgiveness for the crusades from any Muslim or Jew who would listen. No wonder.

Jonah Goldberg, in his just released book Tyranny of Cliches, demonstrates that he is aware of the current scholarship on the Crusades:

The great irony is that the zealot-reformers who want to return to a “pure” Islam have been irredeemably corrupted by Western ideas. Osama bin Laden had the idea that he was fighting the “new crusaders.” When George W. Bush once, inadvertently, used the word “crusade,” jihadists and liberal intellectuals alike erupted with rage. It was either a damning slip of the tongue whereby Bush accidentally admitted his real crusader agenda, or it was a sign of his stunning ignorance about the Crusades. Doesn’t he know what a sensitive issue the Crusades are? Doesn’t he know that the Crusades belong alongside the slaughter of the Indians, slavery, and disco in the long line of Western sins?

After all, it’s been in the papers for a while. In 1999, Muslim leaders demanded that Pope John Paul II apologize for the Crusades. “He has asked forgiveness from the Jews [for the Church’s passivity in the face of the Holocaust], so he should ask forgiveness from the Muslims,” Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, told the New York Times.3   Across the country sports teams have been dropping their crusader mas­cots because they’re offensive to . . . someone. Wheaton College changed their seventy-year-old team name from the Crusaders to the Thunder (no word from Thor worshippers yet as to whether they are off ended). Even Campus Crusade for Christ opted to change its name to Cru partly be­cause the word crusade has become too radioactive. “It’s become a flash word for a lot of people. It harkens back to other periods of time and has a negative connotation for lots of people across the world, especially in the Middle East,” Steve Sellers, the organization’s vice president told Christianity Today. “In the ’50s, crusade was the evangelistic term in the United States. Over time, different words take on different meanings to different groups.”

I’ll say. Until fairly recently, historically speaking, Muslims used to brag about being the winners of the Crusades, not the victims of it. That is if they talked about them at all. “The Crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and, in the last analysis, ineffectual re­sponse to the jihad—a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war,” writes Bernard Lewis, the greatest living historian of Islam in the English language (and perhaps any language).5 Historian Thomas Madden puts it more directly, “Now put this down in your notebook, because it will be on the test: The cru­sades were in every way a defensive war. They were the West’s belated response to the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world.”

Go here to Big Government to read the brilliant rest.  One of the major problems with our political discourse in this country today is the extent to which our failing educational system, alloyed with usually intellectually incurious, and frequently heavily politically indoctrinated,  elites, have produced broad swaths of people who hold degrees from colleges and universities, but who are bone ignorant on a vast array of fairly basic topics, especially in regard to History.  Ignorance is often disastrous, but in regard to History, the sum total of the experiences of Man on this globe, especially so.  Final word to Dr. Madden:

The problem dates back to the 1960s, when core-curriculum/general-education requirements at many schools were loosened up to make way for more freedom, which ultimately meant more courses in the major. After all, if someone comes to college to study engineering, why should he or she have to study the Hittites? I have listened to my share of parents outraged that their pre-med child is failing my history course. Why, they ask, does a doctor (or engineer, or lawyer, or journalist, or whatever) need to know history? It has no bearing on their lives at all and simply gets in the way of courses that do matter.  

Sadly, too many colleges and universities have come to agree with those parents. The end result is a history-education vacuum in America. We have become a society with no long-term memory. We keep discovering anew what we have encountered many times before. For too many Americans, the lessons of the past are restricted to the tiny portion of it with which they have personal experience.

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  1. These people are as ignorant about history as they are about science. I see it often as I discuss subjects related to nuclear energy with the average person. The hallmark of liberalism is the indoctrination of ignorance. By that means can liberals keep keeper shackled to the plantation of nanny government.

  2. Messenger’s of God are known as angels. Pure spirit. Once in a great while ordinary people are mistaken as being angels. This brilliant message from Mr. McClarey could easily place him in that category. Thank you for your efforts to pass along this timely message. March forward Christian in righteousness and humility. Humble to the fact that we are not God. Righteous in the eyes of Him who gives us his Spirit to proclaim His Truth and boldly without shame, profess His Gospels. Day in and day out.
    Glory be to God!

  3. Here are two proposals for future posts: “ISIS Is a Contemporary Footnote in The History of Islam 632 AD to Present: A Lengthy Narrative of Invasions, Massacres, and Rapine”, and “Islam, Obama and Infallible Ignorance.”

    In fact, the Crusades were defensive in nature, i.e. Christendom’s reactions to multiple Muslim conquests and rapines in Jerusalem.

    In conclusion, that was then. This is now. More babies are murdered in USA abortions in a typical week than heretics were burned in 100 years of the Spanish Inquisition.

  4. In one of his better insights, Hegel summed up the results of the Crusades : “At this sepulchre the Christian world received a second time the response given to the disciples when they sought the body of the Lord there: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.” You must not look for the principle of your religion in the Sensuous, in the grave among the dead, but in the living Spirit in yourselves… This then was the absolute result of the Crusades, and from them we may date the commencement of self-reliance and spontaneous activity. The West bade an eternal farewell to the East at the Holy Sepulchre, and gained a comprehension of its own principle of subjective infinite Freedom.”

  5. “In conclusion, that was then. This is now. More babies are murdered in USA abortions in a typical week than heretics were burned in 100 years of the Spanish Inquisition.”

    That goes in my little black book of stolen quotes T. Shaw!

  6. I would love to see a similar explanation of the Inquisition, particularly the Spanish Inquisition. From what I understand, it is not as big a “club” to beat Christianity with as people like Obama think it is.

  7. The Crusades were a series of long, bloody wars. Like all other wars, the Crusades included some immoral acts. It’s theoretically possible to have a war without what we’d call “war crimes”, but I doubt it’s ever even come close to happening. We’re wise to avoid war when possible.

    I think it’s fairer to call the Crusades counter-offensive wars, rather than defensive wars, in the inter-civilizational war that Islam declared on Christianity. The war isn’t unique: Islam has declared war on Judaism, Hinduism, and everyone else. They won against Zoroastrianism. They’ve won against nearly every religion practiced within large parts of the world. They’ve also declared war against secularism.

    The current war definitely isn’t a crusade. The West has taken up everything but the Cross in response. We’ve taken up drones, helicopters, and satellite dish networks filled with dirty movies. The last item on the list may prove to be the most crippling. But even if the war is won, it won’t be Christianity’s victory.

  8. “and satellite dish networks filled with dirty movies. The last item on the list may prove to be the most crippling.”

    Doubtful. Islamic cultures have had some of the most degrading porn imaginable for centuries.

  9. It’s a sad commentary on the pitiful state of our Catholic institutions of
    higher learning that this president’s ignorant, cliched ideas on the nature
    of the crusades are so widespread and largely unchallenged. There are
    around 240 Catholic colleges in this nation, turning out tens of thousands
    of graduates each year for many decades– how is it that all of those millions
    of Catholic college graduates have been so miseducated? Shouldn’t those
    graduates be familiar with the historical truths about Christendom? Would we
    ever see members of Catholic university history departments pointing out to
    the press the errors of this president’s “history” regarding the crusades?

  10. Clinton- AMEN!

    So many of the staff of Catholic colleges believe propaganda against the Church, have no understanding of the Church and science, and not much about what the Church actually teaches concerning society. I have heard a priest say in his homily that “if you have money, that means someone else doesn’t have it”.
    Even Franciscan schools and convents have only a warm fuzzy knowledge of St Francis. We’ve got Dominicans praying in ashrams and Jesuits who are so protestant they answer only to their own authority. Kids come out of Catholic high schools here thinking Israel should not have the land they are currently “occupying” and that Columbus Day should not be a national day of celebration.

  11. I have realized the Democrats’ president is not ignorant. He certainly is not as intelligent as his handlers, controllers and puppetmasters, but he is smarter than a box of rocks. That being said, every word off his teleprompters, including words spoken at something called a “prayer” breakfast, is coldly calculated and premeditated. Divide, divide, divide is how you demonically destroy America. This is his only marching order. I note that he does not refer to the atrocities, torture, inhumanity and terror of Islamists as done “in the name of Mohammed” as they behead innocents shouting Allahu Akbar. Guy McClung, San Antonio

  12. From an informed perspective, neither the medieval or modern Islamic situation justifies Obama’s equivocation. Either he lacks instruction or seeks to obfuscate the reality that confronts us. Either case in a person entrusted with the office he currently holds is unacceptable. There are people who acquire even advanced degrees who, while thoroughly indoctrinated, lack instruction. It is inane to characterize the Crusades by the concomitant crimes of the ignorant and malign who are a portion of humanity always and everywhere. We are presently confronted with militant Islamists bent on conquest and conducting brutal genocidal terror to achieve their goal. Our peculiar President seems to have other priorities, such as a one-party socialist state at home, to which he probably considers foreign affairs a distraction. His attitude is typical on the left, while a narrow view of national interest can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. Nonetheless, confronting genocide is clearly a matter of national interest. It is indeed a matter of every nation’s interest. Those nations having the capacity to do so have a serious moral obligation to save the victims of genocide. If the America that went to war with Hitler averts her gaze from the current horror, we should weep in shame.

  13. I might add that Obama’s references to the inquisition and to slavery are also quite wrong. I doubt I need to inform anyone on this site about the inquisition but Muslims and slavery are historically intertwined. I understand that mangoes were not native to Africa but were planted all up and down the eastern coast by the Arabs to facilitate the feeding of the slaves they marched north.

  14. Steve Brown

    Steven Runciman’s three volume “History of the Crusades,” published between 1951 and 1954 provides the most comprehensive narrative.
    Of his method, he wrote, “The historian must attempt to add to his subjective study the qualities of intuitive sympathy and imaginative perception, without which he cannot hope to comprehend the fears and aspirations and convictions that have moved past generations,” a task in which he, in great measure, succeeded.

  15. Runciman’s trilogy is vastly overrated and his judgment was often bizarre. For example, he called the taking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade the greatest crime in human history, this being written when the ovens of the extermination camps of the Third Reich were barely a decade cold. His three volumes are colorful, and in many ways much of his scholarship was pioneering, but his work has definitely been superceded by more historically accurate recent studies. A good starting point for those interested in the new scholarship on the Crusades is Thomas Madden’s Illustrated History of the Crusades:

    Thomas Madden on Runciman:

    “It was in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that the current view of the Crusades was born. Most of the philosophes, like Voltaire, believed that medieval Christianity was a vile superstition. For them the Crusades were a migration of barbarians led by fanaticism, greed, and lust. Since then, the Enlightenment take on the Crusades has gone in and out of fashion. The Crusades received good press as wars of nobility (although not religion) during the Romantic period and the early twentieth century. After the Second World War, however, opinion again turned decisively against the Crusades. In the wake of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, historians found war of ideology–any ideology –distasteful. This sentiment was summed up by Sir Steven Runciman in his three-volume work, A History of the Crusades (1951-54). For Runciman, the Crusades were morally repugnant acts of intolerance in the name of God. The medieval men who took the cross and marched to the Middle East were either cynically evil, rapaciously greedy, or naively gullible. This beautifully written history soon became the standard. Almost single-handedly Runciman managed to define the modern popular view of the Crusades.

    Since the 1970s the Crusades have attracted many hundreds of scholars who have meticulously poked, prodded, and examined them. As a result, much more is known about Christianity’s holy wars than ever before. Yet the fruits of decades of scholarship have been slow to enter the popular mind. In part this is the fault of professional historians, who tend to publish studies that, by necessity, are technical and therefore not easily accessible outside of the academy. But it is also due to a clear reluctance among modern elites to let go of Runciman’s vision of the Crusades. And so modern popular books on the Crusades–desiring, after all, to be popular–tend to parrot Runciman. The same is true for other media, like the multi-part television documentary, The Crusades (1995), produced by BBC/A&E and starring Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. To give the latter an air of authority the producers spliced in a number of distinguished Crusade historians who gave their views on events. The problem was that the historians would not go along with Runciman’s ideas. No matter. The producers simply edited the taped interviews cleverly enough that the historians seemed to be agreeing with Runciman. As Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith quite vehemently told me, “They made me appear to say things that I do not believe!””

  16. Donald R McClarey wrote, “he called the taking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade the greatest crime in human history…”
    One should bear in mind that Runciman more or less inaugurated Byzantine studies in England. His work earned him a Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1927 and from 1942 to 1945 he was Professor of Byzantine Art and History at Istanbul University. His Byzantine Civilization (1933) long remained the standard text.
    Small wonder that he should have regarded the fall of Constantinople to the Franks as equivalent to the Sack of Rome by the Goths. Speaking of it in 2004, St John Paul II asked the Ecumenical Patriarch, “How can we not share, at a distance of eight centuries, the pain and disgust?”
    It surely ranks with the burning of the Library of Alexandria or with Justinian’s closure of Plato’s Academy.

  17. Don, thank you for this post. I’ve been viewing the short videos on Stephen Robert’s Easy learning. Great artwork. Never would have found the site without this post.
    I am appalled at the current political correctness by Catholic and Christian organizations regarding the use of Crusade, Crusaders and crusade.
    Belated Happy Birthday.

  18. Guy McClung, you are spot on. “Divide est impera.” J. Caesar, Latin I. If only the president were ignorant. It is chilling to believe that most of his remarks are premeditated. I do believe it; there is a script that is as you said “coldly calulated”. Wake up America!
    As for Europe and fanatical Muslims,”Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” -Santyana

  19. As an observer of the Obama phenomenon, I’ve tried to be reasonably charitable. I have told myself, “Oh pay him no mind, it’s just the relativism talking”. All the while, a darker suspicion lurks in my mind, and I begin to think we have a serious obligation to sleuth it out.

  20. “One should bear in mind that Runciman more or less inaugurated Byzantine studies in England.”

    No excuse for his morally deranged statement.

    “the fall of Constantinople to the Franks as equivalent to the Sack of Rome by the Goths.”

    A fair analogy that they both happened to declining powers whose best years were far behind them and lacked the military strength to uphold their imperial pretensions.

    “How can we not share, at a distance of eight centuries, the pain and disgust?”

    Popes are not going to get unity with the Orthodox no matter how much they abase themselves and make silly statements. (After eight centuries anyone who is still feeling pain over the fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade really needs to get a life.)

  21. Donald R McClarey wrote, “Popes are not going to get unity with the Orthodox no matter how much they abase themselves and make silly statements”

    2004 was the eighth centenary of the sack of the city and, in a meeting with the Patriarch, the Pope could hardly pass over it in silence.

  22. Has your pastor had a quiet one-on-one talk with everyone in your parish who shows up for Mass driving a car sporting an Obama bumper sticker?

    Mine hasn’t either.

  23. “2004 was the eighth centenary of the sack of the city and, in a meeting with the Patriarch, the Pope could hardly pass over it in silence.”

    Why meet with the Patriarch at all? The orthodox have made it plain they are not interested in unity. This type of rubbish is a waste of time and merely makes the Popes look weak.

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