One of the great scourges of humanity is so-called “holy war”. The Crusades of the Middle Ages spanned a period of almost 400 years. And that’s just the Crusades in the Middle East. They’re the ones we usually mean when we use the word “Crusades”, but let’s not forget that there were also “Crusades” against “pagans” in the Baltic, “heretical” Christian groups in southern France and elsewhere, and, of course, the “Reconquista” in what’s now Spain and Portugal. Let’s also not forget that the Crusaders massacred large numbers of Jews in the Rhineland, during the First Crusade, and that Latin Christians sacked the Greek Christian capital of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. I hate reading about the Fourth Crusade, because I love Venice and it always upsets me that the Venetians behaved so appallingly.
Anyway, back to the BBC 4 programme. I think this was on, on BBC 2, a few years ago, but it’s certainly worth watching again, especially given what’s going on in the world at the moment. In the first episode, we got, logically enough, the First Crusade. In the third and final episode, I assume we’re going to get Baybars. In the second episode, we got the Third Crusade. Now, the Third Crusade is the “every schoolboy knows” bit. Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. I once rather shocked an Egyptian tour guide by saying that I much preferred Saladin to Richard. I don’t think he expected to hear that from an English historian, but, as Thomas Asbridge explained in this programme, Saladin, the warrior who retook Jerusalem without civilian bloodshed, has got a far better reputation than Richard, the man who massacred 3,000 people at Acre. Interestingly, Thomas was granted access to documents showing that maybe Saladin wasn’t quite the gentleman history’s got him down as, and maybe he wasn’t all that reluctant to spill blood when he retook Jerusalem after all … but, the fact is, it did all happen as peacefully as it could have done.
One aspect of it all which tends to be overlooked is that the Crusades all kicked off when the Byzantines appealed for Western European help against the Turks. But, in 1453, where the hell were the Western Europeans when Constantinople was about fall? Doing very little other than trying to persuade the Byzantine Emperor to convert to Catholicism, is the answer to that. However, that’s rather beside the point. So, first there were the Byzantines asking for help, but then it got turned into this idea of reconquering Jerusalem. Some of those who went had genuine religious motives, either from genuine piety or because going on Crusade was supposed to expiate all your sins and get you a guaranteed pass into Heaven. Others went for adventure, for financial motives, to follow their lords, maybe even because they had nothing else to do. And then the Crusader kingdoms of “Outremer” were set up. It’s easy to forget how long some of them lasted: I was doing some revision on the subject before going to Greece last year, and I’d half-forgotten that not only the rule of the Knights of St John in Malta but some of the other kingdoms lasted into the 15th and 16th centuries.
So, as Thomas Asbridge made clear, the Crusades went well beyond the fighting. They had a huge effect on the culture of both Europe and the Middle East. The term “Franks” is still in common use in the Middle East, and I found in Greece last year that some Catholic churches there are still referred to as “Frankish churches”. And we’re still talking about them. But, at the end of the day, they were wars, and they were about violence, and bloodshed, and religious hatred. And that, sadly, is still going on today, and the Middle East is still the area most affected by it. Maybe one day it’ll all come to an end and Jerusalem and the rest of the Middle East, and the rest of the world, will be free of the bloodshed caused by religion. We can but hope.