President Obama said something about the crusades recently, prompting First Things to link their review of Jonathan Riley-Smith’s The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam from several years back. This reminded me that I wrote a review of that book for the 2009 Analecta Cisterciensia. By an odd coincidence, the first draft of that review (before the editor had me shorten it) began with something that President Obama said about the Crusades. Here is that original, long draft.


Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam. (Bampton Lectures in America). Columbia University Press, New York 2008.

When President Obama, in his acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, claimed that no holy war can be a just war, and cited the crusades as an illustration of the point, he was echoing the dominant contemporary view. According to this view the crusades were bloodthirsty crimes against humanity, motivated by open fanatical hatred of other religions, and by greed masked as devotion to holy places. In this book Prof. Riley-Smith contrasts this view with that taken at the time of the crusades: “To crusade meant to engage in a war which was both holy, because it was believed to be waged on God’s behalf, and penitential, because those taking part considered themselves to be performing an act of penance.” (9) Riley-Smith has been publishing a steady stream of scholarly articles and monographs on the crusades for decades, making him one of the leading experts on crusading history. In the Introduction to this volume he explains that he and other serious historians of the subject are in an “awkward position”; their research has lead them to reject deeply entrenched views of crusading, putting them in conflict with “nearly everyone else, from leading churchmen and scholars in other fields to the general public.” (3) The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam is an attempt to solve this difficulty by meeting contemporary views head on, showing not only how they differ from the reality of the crusades, but also how such distorted views of crusading arose in 19th century and were further distorted in the 20th.

Riley-Smith sees one obstacle to any attempt to arrive at a more realistic view of the crusades in the embarrassment which many Christians now feel about them. This embarrassment leads them to minimalize the importance of crusading history in their past and to claim that crusading represents a bizarre aberration, that has really very little to do with the Christian religion. (4) Against this view Riley-Smith shows that practically all Christians – with the exception of some marginal pacifistic sects – viewed the crusades as something not only reconcilable with Christianity, but as a duty for Christians. This view, “was reinforced by a succession of men and women generally recognized as saints: Bernard of Clairvaux, Dominic, Louis of France, Thomas Aquinas, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, John of Capistrano, even probably Francis of Assisi.” (4-5) The first half of the present volume are concerned with explaining why this was so, by explaining the ideas and motivations that underlay the crusading movement.

The crusaders saw themselves as engaging in a holy war, commanded by Christ through his Vicar, the pope, to liberate the oriental Christians from Muslim oppression, and save the holiest places of the Christian religion from desecration. (ch. 1) They did not however see this divine mandate as dispensing them from the obligation to wage war justly. Riley-Smith examines the Augustinian doctrine of just war, and how it was theologically founded in biblical revelation. He then shows how the three Augustinian criteria for just war – it must be a proportionate reaction to an injury, declared by a competent authority, and waged justly – were applied to the crusades. The most helpful part of this analysis is how it shows the differences between medieval and modern accounts of just war. The modern view of war sees violence as an intrinsically evil means, sometimes justified by the end of preserving the existence of a state. In contrast, the medieval view saw the violence of war as in itself morally neutral: “The real evils were not the death of those who would have died anyway, but the love of violence, cruelty and enmity; it was generally to punish such that good men undertook wars in obedience to God or to some lawful authority.” (13) Given this view of violence, medieval theologians saw no contradiction in the idea that it could be authorized by God. In fact, since they saw human rulers as deriving their authority from God, they saw every just war as being in some way authorized by divine authority. A holy war, waged on God’s behalf, commanded by his vicar on earth, was thus seen as the most unambiguously just war – there could be no doubt that it fulfilled the first two criteria.

Riley-Smith readily admits that the third criterion – that the war be justly waged, sparing noncombatants and avoiding useless cruelty – was not always observed by the crusaders. He argues, however, that indiscipline and atrocities were more a result of loose voluntary organization and extreme stress than ideology (2) and points out that even the soldiers of modern liberal democracies do not always conform to the standards of the jus in bellum. (80)

The modern idea that greed was a motive of the crusades is contrasted with the idea of crusading as penance, which was dominant in much crusade propaganda. (ch. 2) The crusades were in fact extremely dangerous and expensive operations, much more likely to bring death or financial ruin than rich booty. In fact, the idea of the crusades as motivated by greed stems from the late 19th century. How that view came about and was further developed in the 20th century forms the theme of the second half of this book.

The 19th century saw two different reinterpretations of the crusades. The first was carried out by imperialist (mostly in France) who began portraying their imperialist projects in the near east as a continuation of the crusades. Where the crusaders had failed, 19th century France would succeed in bringing the benefits of civilization to the barbarous Arabs. In contrast the critical-romantic view of the crusades developed in the spectacularly popular historical romances of Sir Walter Scott saw the crusaders as gallant but savage, ignorant and bigoted, while it romanticized medieval Islam as an enlightened and advanced society. “Under his faux-oriental clothing, Scott’s Saladin was patently a modern liberal European gentleman.” (66)

These two views of the crusades were merged by Muslim thinkers. Riley-Scott shows how the popular view that the Arabs have inherited bitter memories of the crusades from their ancestors is in fact false. The crusades were not particularly distinguished from the many other wars in which medieval Islam was involved. To the extent that they were remembered at all, they were remembered with complacency as instances in which Muslims had successfully driven out invading unbelievers. It was not until 1898, when the German emperor, who had read Scott as a boy, organized a spectacular visit to the tomb of Saladin, complete with reenactments of crusading events, that Arab crusading historiography really took off. In the 20th century Arab nationalists combined Scott’s idea of the crusaders as destructive barbarians attacking a higher culture, with the French idea of imperialism as a continuation of the crusades, to form a view of the crusades as a continuing struggle, in which the establishment of the state of Israel was the latest chapter, and pan-Arab nationalism the proper response.

In the late 20th century fundamentalist Muslims began to modify the mostly secular view propagated by Arab nationalism, to see the crusades as the fist stage in a satanically motivated attempt at destroying Islam, continued in Western support for Israel and for liberal Arab regimes. Crusading thus became a key element in jihadist propaganda up to the present day. Riley-Smith quotes Osama Bin Laden on the war in Afghanistan: “The battle is between Muslims – the people of Islam – and the global crusaders… the one God who sustained us with one of his helping Hands and stabilized us to defeat the Soviet Empire, is capable of sustaining us again and allowing us to defeat America on the same land.” (75)

According to Riley-Smith, the West cannot counter such propaganda because it does not understand its sources, and largely accepts the distorted jihadist view of the crusades. It is in contributing to a solution of this problem that Riley-Smith sees the main goal of The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam. In the introduction he writes: “we cannot hope to comprehend – and thereby confront – those who hate us so much unless we understand how they are thinking; and this involves opening our eyes to the actuality – not the imagined reality – of our own past.” (6) While many readers will find the insight into current conflicts with the Muslim world the most interesting aspect of the book, Cistercians readers will perhaps find the most interest in the explanation of the motives of the movement to which early Cistercians contributed so much.

Despite its sweeping scope—from The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux to the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and from the tombstones of Medieval France to the speeches of Osama Bin Laden—the book manages to be quite short. Riley-Smith’s brevity is of the sort that is only attained by knowing one’s subject like the back of one’s hand. The effortlessness with which he summons exactly the right example to illustrate a point shows the depth of his scholarship even more than the copious references with which every sentence is supported in the notes. Nevertheless, many readers will doubtless take this work as a stepping stone into the more detailed studies cited.

2 thoughts on “Crusades

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