The TFP’s Crusade Magazine recently did an interview with accomplished medieval historian Professor Thomas Madden of St. Louis University, to dispel some common myths concerning the Crusades. The text of this interview is transcribed below.
1. Some authors contend the Crusades were wars of aggression against a peaceful Muslim world. What is your position in this matter?
It is difficult to see how anyone familiar with the sources could make such a claim. The original goal of the First Crusade, as it was annunciated in the papal call as well as numerous crusader charters, was to respond to Muslim aggression against Christians in the East and to restore those lands taken by Muslims to their Christian owners.
2. Many adversaries of the Crusades claim that, although Crusaders wore crosses and religious symbols, their only goal was to gain riches and territories. What is your opinion on the matter?
This is a fairly old-fashioned view, now largely rejected by scholars. It was based on a Victorian experience with colonialism that has no relationship at all to the medieval Crusades. We now know that crusading was almost never profitable. Crusaders often impoverished themselves and their families in order to pay for their expeditions. Whatever booty they received (and the Crusades were notoriously bad for plunder) was more than offset by their expenses. The vast majority of Crusaders had no interest in remaining in the East, but rather fulfilled their vows and returned home as soon as they were able.
3. Some accuse the Crusades of being a sort of medieval colonialism disguised in religious trappings. Is this true and could you comment on this?
Colonialism, if it is to have any meaning at all, requires certain things: most importantly a mother country that funds and directs the colonial expansion, a colonial government linked to a home government, and policy of colonization or exploitation in the colony. The Crusades had none of these things. No mother country supported the Crusades. Rather they were funded and undertaken by individuals across Christendom for the benefit of their souls and their co-religionists overseas. The governments in the Crusaders States were independent, with no direct ties to any European countries. And the Europeans had no policy of colonization or exploitation in the East. Rather, the overriding purpose of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was to safeguard the Holy Places and the lives of Christian pilgrims coming to visit them.
4. Is the following thesis historically defensible: Although the West lost political control over the Holy Land and the near East after the seventh and last Crusade, the effort Christians made from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries broke the impetus of the Muslim offensive against Europe and thus prevented the European continent from becoming Islamic back in medieval times.
No, on several counts. The Seventh Crusade was by no means the last Crusade. They continued well into the sixteenth century. The famous Battle of Lepanto in 1571 was a Crusade. Catholics did lose the mainland, but they held onto Cyprus and Rhodes for centuries. I believe it is fair to say, however, that the Crusades did slow the advance of Muslim Empires — namely the Ottoman Empire — into Europe just long enough to allow Europeans to effectively defend themselves. I have no doubt that had there been no Crusades at all that western Europe would have been conquered by Muslims in much same fashion as southeastern Europe was.
5. The Fourth Crusade is one of the most maligned of the Crusades. This is the Crusade you have studied in depth. Could you comment on some of the myths about the Fourth Crusade?
The biggest myth is that the Crusade was purposely diverted from its original goal — either by Pope Innocent III or Doge Enrico Dandolo — in order to conquer Constantinople. In fact, on several occasions the pope forbade the crusaders to go to Constantinople and once they were there, forbade them to attack the city. It is also not true that the Crusaders were led to Constantinople by a hatred of the Greeks or an envy of their empire. Instead, they came to Constantinople at the invitation of a Greek claimant to the throne, who promised to help them on their Crusade. The Crusaders only attacked Constantinople after their Greek friend double-crossed them, refusing to pay their reward or to join the Crusade. Even then, they only initiated hostilities when the Greeks murdered their former friend and ordered the Crusaders to leave immediately without reward, support, or even food. The Fourth Crusade is a tragedy, but it is one in which the Greeks and Latins both played important parts.