With the release of Ridley Scott's new movie Kingdom of Heaven, the crusades are very much in the news at the moment. The critics seem to be greeting the latest historical epic with all the lack of enthusiasm with which they met Troy, King Arthur and Alexander. Gladiator this is not. Indeed the slew of second rate historical epics can be laid squarely at Ridley Scott's door for giving us such a great movie that everyone has been unsuccessfully trying to emulate.
We have been discussing the crusades at the Bede's Library yahoo group and several interesting links have been suggested. I've read the classic account by Steven Runicman, Edward Gibbon's opus and a few others. Runciman's three volume work is a masterpiece and set the scene for much of today's discussion. His bias is more pro-Byzantine than pro-Islam and it was he who promoted the fall of Constantinople in 1205 to the position of greatest crusader atrocity. He also doesn't like Normans very much either (see also his The Sicilian Vespers) and we should be thankful he never wrote about 1066.
Today we can all agree that war is a bad thing. But this is a radical idea not shared with most of humanity through most of history. The reason, I think, we believe that violence is evil is partly the carnage of the Great War and partly the strongly pacifist colouring of modern Christianity which it passed on to the political left (at least in Europe). As Jonathan Riley Smith points out, the pacifism of Christianity, now well represented by the Catholic Church itself, was not its position in the Middle Ages. To them , violence was morally neutral and what counted was the end to which it was aimed.
The major misunderstanding about the crusades, especially in the Middle East, is to see them as proto-imperialist ventures. Our angst over nineteenth century colonialism is responsible for this anachronism, carried back to the Middle East by the alumni of western universities like the London School of Economics. In fact, the crusades are simply part of a long series of wars between Christendom and Islam that lasted from the eighth to the eighteenth centuries. Interestingly, Islam can justifiably claim to have won the crusades but this tends to be forgotten as they now perceive they have lost the war. But using the crusades as a way of reinforcing the Moslem culture of victimhood is not doing them or anyone else any good.
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