From the safe distance of many centuries, it is easy enough to scowl in disgust at the Crusades. Religion, after all, is nothing to fight wars over. But we should be mindful that our medieval ancestors would have been equally disgusted by our infinitely more destructive wars fought in the name of political ideologies. And yet, both the medieval and the modern soldier fight ultimately for their own world and all that makes it up. Both are willing to suffer enormous sacrifice, provided that it is in the service of something they hold dear, something greater than themselves. Whether we admire the Crusaders or not, it is a fact that the world we know today would not exist without their efforts. The ancient faith of Christianity, with its respect for women and antipathy toward slavery, not only survived but flourished. Without the Crusades, it might well have followed Zoroastrianism, another of Islam’s rivals, into extinction. ~Prof. Thomas F. Madden, Godspy.com
Hat tip to Paul J. Cella.
Prof. Madden’s review of the history of the Crusades is well worth reading. In general, his conclusions are unexceptionable and it is a credit to Crusades historians and medievalists that they have worked so hard to understand the Crusades in terms of the cultural imperatives of medieval Christianity and to recapture some sense of what these armed pilgrimages meant to those engaged in them. It has often been surprisingly difficult for Byzantinists to engage fully the mentality of Byzantine Christians (though most Byzantinists are ultimately successful in this regard), so this is no small accomplishment for any modern scholar. Whether religion is something to fight wars over (indeed, whether it is the only thing important enough to have wars over) is a question for another time.
His comments on the tragedy of the Fourth Crusade are quite right, though I would add that the real disaster of that attack was the basic crippling of the Byzantine empire and a diversion of Byzantine resources to recapturing Constantinople for the next fifty-seven years. This made the empire exceedingly vulnerable to future attacks from the east at the same time that renewed threats appeared in the west in the person of Charles of Anjou. If Innocent III found the sack of Constantinople appalling, his successors saw the Latin empire as a providential blessing and did their utmost for nearly a century to establish another one after it fell to Michael VIII.
The internal wars of Byzantium in the fourteenth century did much to hasten the end of the state, but there is little doubt that the persistent pressure and threat from western powers short-sightedly undermined and then destroyed Europe’s best defense against Islamic invasions. Thus the tragedy was not only the deepening of the alienation between Orthodox and Catholic (which was already well under way in the twelfth century), but helping to open the door to Europe to Ottoman invasion when it finally did come.
As Srdja Trifkovic has noted, the Crusades should be criticised only to the extent that they harmed the Christian East, but the damage done to Byzantium and the Orthodox of the eastern Patriarchates was considerable. In any positive reevaluation of the Crusades, which is by no means unwelcome, that fact must continually be borne in mind. Modern senseless hostility to the Orthodox world among Western elites, revealed in the aggression against Serbia and the efforts to undermine or destabilise other historically Orthodox polities, is a reminder that the mistakes that worked to destroy Byzantium and imperil Europe for two centuries are being made again.