Suzannah Rowntree has written an article on American Vision mocking the Crusades, the Crusaders, and those who happen to admire their exploits and signal their admiration by using idealized depictions of Crusaders as avatars on social media. Rowntree begins by claiming that her “love for the Crusades is strong.” I find this claim laughably absurd in light of the many slanders that she presents in her article. Rowntree’s objection is to what she calls “Crusader fetishism” or portrayals of Crusaders as valiant, noble, strong, and fearsome warriors riding to victory, and she lists several reasons for her distaste. I will respond to her comments in the order that she presents them. This is certainly not an exhaustive defense of the Crusades. I highly recommend Rodney Stark’s God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades for an excellent overview of the Crusades in the Middle East. My responses to Rowntree will be largely based on the information that Stark provides.
“In reality, the Crusaders spent a lot of time crying like little girls.”
Rowntree cites some examples of the Crusaders crying. The fact that Rowntree can compare the Crusaders to “little girls” without providing any context is simply astounding. I’ve read several accounts of men crying during the heat of battle or as a result of war. It should surprise no one that men would cry upon witnessing their friends and comrades slain or as a result of hunger and other harsh conditions. Stark points out that the Crusades were largely organized and financed by Franko-Norman nobles who in many cases mortgaged everything in order to take up the Cross and go on Crusade. The journey east was arduous given the means of travel at the disposal of the Crusaders. The Crusaders were organized at the request of the Byzantine emperor, who desperately needed reinforcements against Turkish incursions.
When the Crusaders arrived in Byzantium to unite with Byzantine forces, they were essentially betrayed by the emperor, who was interested only in recruiting soldiers from Western Europe to keep Turkish troops in the Middle East occupied to prevent their advance on Constantinople. The Crusaders marched on to Palestine without the army of Byzantines who were supposed to accompany them. Upon arrival in the Middle East the Crusaders faced armies of superior numbers who were fighting in familiar territory under conditions to which they were well-adapted. Undoubtedly many men took up the Cross of the Crusades with an overly romantic idea of how things would go. This happens during any war, and inevitably initial enthusiasm is quashed under the grim realities of war. This is especially true of the Crusades when the conditions that the Crusaders faced were exponentially worse than what average soldiers experience today. For Rowntree to mock these men from the comforts of her 21st-century life in the Western world is utterly asinine.
“They (and their noble steeds) frequently died of starvation, thirst, and disease.”
Your point? The fact that men were willing to endure such hardship in order to fight for their cause ought to increase our admiration for their resolve. Restoring Christian rule in Palestine and protecting holy sites for Christian pilgrims was of such importance that Crusaders were willing to make great sacrifices in order to accomplish these objectives. I suppose that Rowntree could argue that she is simply objecting to portrayals of Crusaders as robust and formidable when they were all starving to death, but this objection doesn’t withstand scrutiny.
Later Rowntree suggests that instead of pictures of robust knights, Crusaders ought to be depicted with “a picture of a miserable, sick, and emaciated man riding into battle on a cow. Because that’s what the Crusaders looked like in their greatest moments of victory.” This is obviously ridiculous. The Crusaders achieved many victories and were able to establish ports in which Western merchants could resupply the Crusader states. These Crusader states were maintained for hundreds of years, which would have been utterly impossible if the Crusaders were languishing in a constant state of disease and starvation.
“They’re actually quite famous for running away.”
The Crusaders sometimes were forced to retreat, and at times retreated because of cowardice. Rowntree makes a fantastic leap to conclude that the Crusaders were “quite famous for running away.” The reality is that Crusaders scored many of their victories against tremendous odds against Muslim armies that were better equipped with many more men. Bohemond became legendary for his near-miraculous victory during the siege of Antioch. The Crusader army had thinned out considerably by the time of the successful siege of Jerusalem due to the attrition of war and the need to garrison troops in territories that had already been conquered. Godfrey de Bouillon deserves the heroic reputation that he acquired during the Crusades.
Richard the Lionheart repeatedly defeated Saladin against superior numbers through his famous resolve that earned him his well-known moniker. The only reason that Richard opted against retaking Jerusalem was because he knew that Crusader forces were spread too thin to retain the city for any length of time. The peace terms granted by Saladin allowed Richard and the Crusaders access to the city to worship at Christian holy sites, which would not have been granted if Saladin thought the Crusaders incapable of taking the city at least temporarily. Richard refused to enter Jerusalem until it was in Christian hands, although circumstances prevented Richard from returning to complete this task. Needless to say, the Crusader kingdoms could not have held out for as long as they did if Crusaders were inordinately prone to retreat and cowardice. The longevity of the Crusader kingdoms is testament to the sagacity and determination on the part of the Crusaders and is simply incompatible with Rowntree’s accusation that Crusaders tended to be cowards.
“Crusaders were not particularly noteworthy for their Christian virtue.”
Rowntree briefly alludes to accusations that Crusaders committed atrocities during the course of battle. Crusader conduct during the siege of Jerusalem in particular is usually maligned. One Muslim chronicle accused the Crusaders of burning the Jews alive in their synagogue. Stark addresses these claims in his book, and demonstrates that many of these claims ought to be dismissed as exaggerations at best. For example, the earliest chronicle of the siege was written from a Jewish source and it does not mention a massacre of Jews. Some non-combatants were slain. This is virtually inevitable in any siege in which the city refuses to surrender. The Crusaders allowed remaining non-combatants to be ransomed to other cities in Muslim hands. Most contemporary academics that harp on these claims ignore many real atrocities committed by Muslims against Christians during the same period.
Rowntree complains of other examples of “everyday evildoing” among the Crusaders. The Crusaders certainly weren’t perfect. Many of them had gone on Crusades to fulfill a penance that was assigned for some other crime that they had committed back home. Christian chroniclers of the period often complained about loose morality among many of the Crusaders and interpreted setbacks, reversals, and defeats as divine judgment against the Crusaders for their lack of piety. This can be said of virtually any army throughout the course of history. Warfare brings the opportunity for vice, and unfortunately many soldiers take advantage. This reality should not prevent anyone from admiring the Crusaders for their many real virtues.
“Crusaders permitted Muslims to have mosques and to pray in Christian churches.”
That is true, but misleading. No army was strong enough to completely suppress their enemy even within conquered territory. Muslim communities continued within the Crusader states throughout the duration of the kingdoms. Muslim diplomats were also afforded the opportunity to pray in private. This had nothing to do with any notion of religious freedom, but was simply an accommodation to less than ideal circumstances.
“Crusaders had good things to say about their Muslim enemies.”
Would Rowntree prefer unjustified machismo? The Crusaders understood that they were fighting a worthy foe that would not be easily defeated, and they still willingly faced the challenge that was presented them. The fact that the Crusaders recognized the martial prowess of their enemies ought to be commended rather than mocked or condemned.
“Crusaders were fine with sharia law.”
This is perhaps the most dishonest accusation that Rowntree makes in the entire article. The source that Rowntree cites suggests that Muslims were allowed to take oaths on the Koran in Frankish Christian courts, but it also admits, “There is no documentary evidence for internal Muslim jurisdiction.” This is simply another example of an accommodation to circumstances that were not ideal. The extent to which this accommodation should have been allowed is debatable, but in no sense could this lead anyone to conclude that the “Crusaders were fine with sharia law.”
“Oh yeah, and: the Crusaders lost.”
At best this is an oversimplification. It would be far more accurate to say that the Middle Eastern Crusades were not a long-term success. The crusading victories in Palestine came at a considerable cost in lives and money. Maintaining conquered kingdoms among a hostile Muslim and Jewish populace presented many logistical difficulties that were difficult to overcome. (Contrary to neo-cons and dispensationalists who imagine eternal enmity between Jews and Muslims, Jews tended to favor the Muslim side in conflicts between Christians and Muslims.) Rodney Stark also notes that the participation of kings in the Crusades meant that taxes, referred to as Saladin taxes, were collected to finance the Crusades; these became unpopular as the Crusaders experienced setbacks and reversals.
Many went on crusade in order to fulfill vows or as a penance imposed by their confessor. Naturally many of these men decided to return home after their vows and obligations were fulfilled. This necessitated a constant stream of fresh soldiers and supplies from Western Europe. What is surprising is that the Crusaders managed to successfully maintain the Crusader states for as long as they did in the midst of persistent hostile opposition. The situation in the Middle East can easily be contrasted with the Northern Crusades in Scandinavia and the Baltic states in which native European populations were converted to Christianity. If the European natives had tenaciously clung to their paganism and had presented a united front as the Muslims did in the Middle East, it would be easy to imagine the fall of Christian states in Northern Europe.
Rowntree’s Conclusion and the Real Issue of Crusader Imagery
Towards the end of her article Rowntree pays the Crusaders a back-handed compliment: “The precarious courage of those enfeebled, terrified First Crusaders is far more inspiring to me than the chest-thumping propaganda I see posted on social media by men who have never known bodily discomfort.” I find this particularly ironic. Rowntree criticizes the Crusaders while enjoying the ease and comfort of living in the 21st-century West amidst the ruins of a civilization that triumphed over repeated Muslim incursions. This is particularly relevant in light of the recent Muslim invasion via immigration into Western countries. Rowntree suggests that the Crusaders were not fighting “to close borders, ban burkas, or eradicate sharia law.” The implication, astonishing as it may seem, is that the Crusaders would have accepted Muslim mass migration into Europe if they could have only succeeded in instituting nominal Christian rule in the Middle East.
Other commentators on American Vision pointed this out as well, and predictably Joel McDurmon accused them of dishonesty and insisting that they “get with the Christian program.” Rowntree’s implication is clear enough; those who want to close borders in Western countries to Muslim immigration should not look to the Crusaders as their example. The absurdity of this position is obvious. The Crusades took place during a prolonged period of resistance to Muslim aggression. Christian Europeans halted the Muslim advance at the famous Battle of Tours and were ultimately successful in the Reconquista of Spain and Portugal after Muslims had ruled the Iberian Peninsula for about seven centuries. After the Middle Eastern Crusades had ended, Christian Europeans successfully fended off the Turkish invasion at The Battle of Lepanto. There is simply no basis for Rowntree’s suggestion that the Crusaders or other Christian Europeans were uninterested in closed borders (a.k.a. borders).
There are legitimate criticisms of the Middle Eastern Crusades. We could question the wisdom of recruiting soldiers by imposing crusading as a penance. Naturally this meant that many soldiers participated on a short-term basis and may not have been as committed as other volunteers. Further, a better focus for crusading would have been better served in the Reconquista effort to eject Moorish invaders from Spain and Portugal. Crusading in the Middle East was given greater prestige because of the holy sites associated with the life of Christ, but the infusion of volunteers into Spain from England, France, and Germany would likely have brought about victory much earlier than it was achieved. This could also have freed up scores of Spanish and Portuguese fighting men for crusading in the Middle East.
There was a lamentable lack of Christian unity during the period of the Crusades, both between East and West and among Western Christians as well. The Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, reneged on his promise of Byzantine troops for the First Crusade and seemingly had no interest in recovering lost Byzantine territory in the Middle East. The emperor seems to have viewed the prospect of a Crusade as a means to occupy the Turks and prevent them from making further advances into Byzantium. Had the Byzantines kept their word and provided the necessary manpower, the conquered territories may well have remained within the Byzantine Empire.
Christian misfortune and disunity during the Third Crusade also limited the success of the campaign. There is also the death of Frederick I Barbarossa by drowning while crossing a river on the way to the Middle East. The unfortunate loss of a great leader and warrior like Frederick caused many of his German Crusaders to return home. Phillip II Augustus of France also returned home after an initial naval victory in order to harass England under Prince John. Had Phillip remained, and especially if Frederick had survived in order to bring his men, it is easy to imagine a combined German, French, and English force entirely routing Saladin and easily retaking Jerusalem, especially since Richard the Lionheart almost accomplished this task single-handedly.
The real issue with Rowntree’s criticisms of the Crusades and idealized depictions of the Crusaders is what these portrayals represent. Virtually everyone who posts the images of Crusaders on social media realize that these images are idealized. These depictions are in the spirit as John Trumbull’s famous painting, Declaration of Independence, which isn’t to present a snapshot of a scene that was supposed to have taken place, but to show the Founders as courageous men of firm resolve in their defiance of Parliament. Idealized depictions of Crusaders are meant to inspire ourselves and other beleaguered white Christians to emulate the courage and heroism of the Crusaders who took up the cross and sacrificed everything they had to defend Christendom from the attack of hostile heathens. This is especially relevant today as the West is being flooded with scores of Muslims who are here at the behest of our treasonous secularist rulers. Rowntree is a libertarian/egalitarian disciple of Marinov who is opposed to any immigration restriction on principle as a manifestation of “pagan power religion.” For those of us who oppose the permanent destruction of Christian civilization in Europe, the noble Crusader knight remains a powerful symbol of our cause.