January 24, 2002
volume 13, no. 14

Understanding the Crusades    part two

The Positive Religious Factor: Feelings About Jerusalem

    A principal goal of the Crusade in the minds of the people was the liberation of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was more than a symbolic military or economic institution, like the Pentagon or the World Trade Center. Jerusalem was a living relic of Christendom, the site on earth where God chose to intervene in History to become incarnate and to redeem man. "Those places where the Lord's feet have trod," wrote James of Vitry, "are held by the faithful to be holy and consecrated and as precious relics." [7] 7. James of Vitry, Historia, I, p. 1081 in J.S.C. Riley-Smith, "Peace Never Established: The Case of the Kingdom of Jerusalem," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sept. 15, 1977, p. 89. Here, near Nablus, was the well where He had rested and received the pitcher of water from the Samaritan woman. There, at the River Jordan, Christ had been Baptized. At Bethlehem was the sacred site of His Birth. Now these sites were being desecrated and reviled, the churches and sacred vessels pillaged and plundered. For medieval man, to defend Jerusalem from such acts of profanation was the natural consequence of his great love of God.

    When Pope Urban II preached the Crusade at Clermont, he described the desecration by the Muslims of the Holy Land, and especially the Holy Sepulchre: "Let the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord our Savior, which is possessed by unclean nations, especially incite you, and the holy places which are now treated with ignominy and irreverently polluted with their filthiness." [8] 8. Munro, "Urban and the Crusaders," pp. 5-8.

    This caused great outrage, in part because the average Western European was better acquainted with the Bible lands, as they called them, than any place other than their own villages and towns. The Holy Land was the Christians' "other home." When the great cry "Deus vult" [God wills it!] broke forth, it was the zealous response of fervent Christians who felt their religious symbols and heritage violated.

    This call for a war to defend the religious patrimony of all Christendom quickly reverberated throughout the West, and initiated a great alliance of kingdoms who came together to fight a common threat to the West.

A Threat to the Very Existence of Western Civilization

What was this actual threat to the West?

    By the end of the 12th Century, the Muslim Turks had turned their attention to Asia Minor. The conquering Muslim hordes swept through the Christian East, and finally turned toward Constantinople. The new Emperor, Alexius Comnenus, realized his weakened state and appealed to Western Christendom for help to protect his crumbling empire.

    The Christian West, which had launched the reconquista of the Iberian kingdoms in the 8th Century, were already combating the Almohades Muslims, ferocious and fanatical Arab invaders from Morocco, on their own soil. The threat of the fall of the Eastern Christian capital, ConstantinopIe, to the Turks would leave the West vulnerable to an attack from a united and strong Arab front in the East. Convinced that the menace of Islam threatened the existence of Western civilization and that he alone had the power to organize a large expeditionary force to defend Christianity from the Muslim advance, Pope Urban II made a call to the nobility of Western Europe.

    The response to Pope Urban II's plea was overwhelming. Large numbers answered the call with great enthusiasm and streamed eastward in several waves. Beyond all reasonable expectations, the Crusaders retook Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, [9] 9. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, ed. Jonathan Riley-Smith, [Oxford/NY: Oxford Un. Press, 1995], p.141. establishing several Crusader states that would last for almost two centuries.

Heroic Undertaking in the Service of a Great Ideal

    The Crusades left a positive mark on the Western imagination. The very expression, crusade, became and has remained synonymous with heroic endeavors in the service of a great ideal. As recently as last month, President George Bush adapted the term to the present situation and called for a "crusade" against international terrorism.

    For medieval man, the Crusade was an act of piety and love of God and neighbor. But it was also a means of defending their world, their culture, their religion, and their way of life. Then, as today, men fight for what is most dear to them. Then, as today, it is the right thing to do.

    How, then, does one explain the anti-crusade movement in our country? A point of reference would be the pacifist minorities who zealously promote it here and there, often on university campuses. They represent the most deleterious segments of public opinion------communists, hippies, homosexuals, ecologists, feminists, liberal religious, etc., and their voices are echoed loudly in the media. One of their goals is to discredit the Catholic Church and her past heroes. It would be difficult to understand how the anti-crusade movement managed to impose its unhistorical and distorted theses so profoundly on the Western mentality, except for the fact that it was accomplished with the full support of the progressivist current in the Church. But this is yet another topic, better left for a different opportunity.

Marian Therese Horvat, Ph.D.

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For past columns by Dr. Horvat, see Archives of Echoes of True Catholicism

Thursday, January 24, 2002
volume 13, no. 14
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