I’ve read some books on the history of the Crusades and it is a rather fascinating chapter of Church history. It is kind of like the Facebook relationship status “It’s complicated.” Yet as interesting as the history of the Crusades is, it is usually a history that was filtered and altered down to us as a synonym of evil. In a Robert Heinlein book I recently read the Crusades were put on the same par as the Holocaust.
So when I first heard mention of a new book put out by Catholic Answers on the subject I was of course intrigued. Especially since it has the provocative title of The Glory of the Crusades. So I was very happy to get a review copy.
The author Steve Weidenkopf is a lecturer of Church History at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. As with other books on the history of the Crusades I have read there is a robust debunking of the various myths associated with them. I really enjoyed getting a much broader look at the historical context especially all the events that lead up to them. These events make it more understandable to see why Pope Urban II called for what became known as the first Crusade. In the past I had thought that it was the case that pilgrims to the Holy Lands were harassed or killed. I had no idea the scope of this such as when a group of 12,000 pilgrims were massacred by the Seljuk Turks. At the same time there were incursions on the Byzantine Empire as the Seljuk Turks took over Nicea and were in range of Constantinople. This caused Emperor Alexius I Comnenus to send ambassadors to the pope seeking help in a rescue effort. An irony of history considering the tragic events of the Fourth Crusade.
One of the problems with reviewing this book is that I learned so much from it along with the book being chock-full of surprising tidbits. It would be so easy to want to fill the review with all this information. I was totally absorbed in his relating of this history the good and the bad. While called The Glory of the Crusades this book does not shy off from the shame of some of the actions during them such as the despicable Sack of Constantinople. Lots of contrasts between men like Godfrey who rejected the title of king and his brother Baldwin who had no qualms about being named King in Jerusalem. Contrasts between St. Louis IX and Frederick II. The retelling of this history is such that at times I felt frustration over the stupidity of how the Crusades were managed from a logistical point of view and how they seemed to learn no lessons from previous Crusades. Along with anger regarding the evil done during the Crusades. This history became bright in my mind like it was a recent event. In modern times we think of national armies like the wars in the last 100 years and how different this was from the reality concerning the centuries the Crusades occurred in. The picturesque phrase “herding cats” seems to be an apt comparison to the loose associations of the men signed with the cross.
The term Crusades is a modern word as the author notes.
“Crusading contemporaries used the term passagia, among others, meaning an “exceptionally large military expedition declared against unbelievers.” Those who undertook the passagia were known as crucesignati, or “those signed with the cross.”
One final aspect of this book that I enjoyed is it also went into a more detailed history of how the well-known myths became the accepted history for many. It is easy to see how this was done as we have experienced in recent history regarding Pius XII. A history retold through through anti-Catholic bias by first Protestants and then secularists, Communists, and eventually Muslims. There was enough evil in the Crusades that it didn’t need to be embellished, yet still it was recast as if the Crusaders were the invading armies bent only on riches. At least modern Crusades scholarship is now more focused on studying this history through the perspective of the participants instead of simply projecting on them their motives.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable read with close to 700 footnotes. Usually a large number of footnotes is inversely proportional to how enjoyable something is to read.