The danger of reading a history of the Crusades, such as The Crusades, by Zoe Oldenburg, is that it tends to make you root for the bad guys. In a history that treats the Franks as the protagonists, you naturally start to sympathize with them. But the Crusaders' cause, to capture and hold Jerusalem for Christendom, was always a dubious one, and the century (almost) of Frankish rule in that city was initiated by a massacre and punctuated by various acts of perfidy, war crimes, and wanton aggression. It is a terrible irony that all this violence was done in the name of the Prince of Peace.
But what a story! Knights in armor, and castles, have fired the imagination for centuries after their military obsolescence, and the journeys and adventures and battles and sieges that fill the history of the Crusades are romantic in themselves. To that, add that the Crusaders are a minority in their own kingdom and severely outnumbered by their Muslim neighbors. They can survive only by shrewd strategy and by regularly beating numerically superior Muslim armies. To that, add the element of religion, the fervor of Catholic Christians for the cause of Jerusalem, raising the stakes, and also the dissensions and enmities among the (mutually heretical) Eastern Christians, and, later, the spirit of jihad that grew among the Muslims. Surprisingly-- and for enhancing the narrative, this is almost too good to be true-- not only war and religion but love (of men and women, that is) plays a central part in the story, because of the dynastic element inherent in Frankish feudal society. In 1147, the brilliant and passionate Eleanor of Acquitaine, queen of France, comes to the Holy Land with her husband King Louis VII and the Second Crusade, and meets her uncle Raymond of Poitiers, prince of Antioch, is rumored to have had an affair with him, and is persuaded by him to ask her husband for a divorce. This contributes to the failure of the Second Crusade. Soon after this, Raymond dies in battle, and his young widow, Constance, despite pressure from her uncle, the king of Jerusalem, to marry a suitable candidate for price, is determined to marry for love. The man she falls in love with, Raynald of Chatillon, is a scandalously low-born husband for such a lofty personage, a younger son of a minor family in France, an energetic knight, but disastrously rash, who thereby becomes prince of Antioch. Repeatedly, the passionate women of the leading families of Frankish Syria play a fascinating, sometimes treacherous part in events. And then there is the Leper King, Baldwin IV, who reigns from 1174 to 1185 as the kingdom is encircled by the rising power of Saladin (it will fall in 1187), whose hideous disease seems like a metaphor for the doomed Kingdom of Jerusalem. Yet Baldwin IV displays an amazing will to live, leading his knights in battle on horseback as a boy, and later from a litter as his body begins to fall apart. He wins a spectacular victory against the numerically superior armies of Saladin in the Battle of Montgisard in 1177. Yet Baldwin IV is unable to fix the throne, which he will soon inescapably vacate, on anyone capable of saving the kingdom.
The story of the Crusades fits the Aristotelian mold of tragedy. There is sense of inevitability about the Franks' downfall. It is partly that the Franks are so outnumbered by the Muslims. Yet the Franks' mode of warfare, especially their fearsome armor which makes the knights like men of iron, and their spectacular courage, seems to make them more effective militarily, man for man, than their adversaries. And they also get intermittent support from western Europe, and the tacit threat that the great kings of the Franks from overseas can come to their aid is a diplomatic asset. It is the Franks' own character flaws and errors, as much as the Muslims' strength, that doom them. The reader (or listener) is constantly feeling If only... If only... If only...
Zoe Oldenburg emphasizes how strangely "disinterested" the Crusades were. Not that all Crusaders, all the time, were disinterested-- many Frankish knights greatly raised their station in the East, and some went their in the first place in order to make their fortunes-- but often enough to surprise, and to set the Crusades apart from other wars. Maybe. But I cannot believe that the Soviet peasant fighting desperately against the Nazis were thinking first and foremost of their own self-interest. They are thinking about the fatherland. What distinguishes the Crusades is that they were not fighting for the particular interests of their fatherland or their family, but for a cause-- Jerusalem, the True Cross, salvation-- with universal significance. Also fascinating is that this was a war fought by volunteers, by people who voluntarily left all to take up the cross; this goes for both the First Crusaders and for the reinforcements who were steadily coming from Europe.
I have said the cause was dubious. From the perspective of contemporary international law, i.e., from the point of view of Westphalian sovereignty, the Crusaders' determination to control Jerusalem can be considered nothing but aggression. The Westphalian point of view cannot accept the idea that Christians had some rights over a distant land because they held it sacred, no matter how fervently. For the same reason, the Westphalian point of view accepts the right of the US government to shut out (most of) the foreign-born, regardless of how much they feel that they are-- culturally, morally-- a part of America and long to participate in it. (From the Westphalian point of view, by the way, Saladin, the Muslim usurper who eventually destroyed the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem, was also an aggressor, for by his day Frankish Syria had been in existence for almost a century and was, regardless of what its origins had been, an established, legitimate state.)
Saladin is the hero of the Crusades on the Muslim side. And he is widely admired in the Muslim world to this day, long after the West (except for a few history-loving dilettantes like me) has forgotten about Godfrey of Bouillon, Roger of Salerno, Raymond of Poitiers, and the Leper King Baldwin IV. This is not to the Muslim world's credit. Saladin, in the later part of his career, was notable for keeping his word, and was famous for the generosity of his almsgiving. He won the admiration of his Christian adversaries, and this served him well: the leader of the Third Crusade, Richard the Lion-Hearted, had success against Saladin in battle, but ultimately never even counter-attacked Jerusalem, protesting his friendship for the chivalrous Saladin. Saladin did not massacre the population of Jerusalem, as the First Crusaders had done. But he sold thousands of them into slavery. Earlier in his career, he had betrayed the Fatimid caliph of Egypt, and burned many of the caliph's soldiers and servants, with their families, alive. The man who suppressed the Fatimid "heresy" in Egypt is hardly a paragon of religious tolerance. Saladin's mercy was selective: he was comparatively lenient towards most captured Franks, yet the military orders-- the Templars and the Hospitallers-- he despised, and killed whenever he could find them. A man with Saladin's virtues and flaws would not be remembered as a particularly good man had he lived in Europe, and this illustrates the moral gap that still exists between the two civilizations. (Ironically, Saladin, Saddam Hussein's hero, was a Kurd.)
The Crusades were part of the papal revolution in the 11th century, when the popes broke free of the Eastern Church and set out to reform the Western Church in a way that enhanced their power. Other aspects of the papal revolution were the struggle to eliminate "simony," insisting that only the Holy See should have the right to appoint bishops. Since bishops enjoyed considerable temporal wealth and power, this was a major power grab by the popes, and led to a spectacular scene in 1077 when the Emperor Henry IV had to stand in the snow for three days outside the castle of Canossa to ask forgiveness from the pope, who had just displayed his power by excommunicating the emperor and causing his position in Germany to collapse. The mutual anathemas exchanged by the Holy See and Constantinople in 1054, precipitating an East-West (Orthodox-Catholic) split that has lasted ever since, was triggered by Cardinal Humbert, one of the leading figures in the 11th-century papal revolution.
One might say that the consequences of the papal revolution have been crashing down on our heads ever since. To finance the Crusades, the popes began to issue "indulgences," a practice by which the Church offered absolution from sin in exchange, first for participation in the Crusades, later for money. The crusading idea also began to be turned against the Church's enemies within Europe, most importantly in the case of the Albigensian heresy in France. The growing power and pride of the Catholic Church in the later Middle Ages, and its corruption, eventually provoked Luther and other Protestant reformers, who tried to revive the primitive, original Christianity of which they could not believe that the worldly, oppressive, corrupt Roman Church was the incarnation. But the Protestant Reformation triggered new forms of fanaticism, while the Roman Church sought to regain its hegemony by force, and Protestant-Catholic rivalries eventually led to the sickening bloodshed of the Thirty Years' War, which was a religious war, like the Crusades. In a horrified reaction to all this religious war, the late 17th century and the 18th century European intellectuals embraced "reason." The Crusades linger in Western memory today mainly as a reproach against organized religion, by the Enlightenment philosophes, and against the West, by Muslims.
The Crusades are a factor in world affairs today. Some Muslims call the Israelis "crusaders," and the example of the Crusaders' eventual departure inspires hope that one day the Israelis will eventually depart.