Presenter Thomas Asbridge confronts the brutality of the Crusades without lapsing into polemic

Good news from the BBC. The new series about the Crusades, the first episode of which was aired last night on BBC Two, is excellent. The programme is fronted by a serious scholar with an engaging manner, Dr Thomas Asbridge of Queen Mary College, University of London. You can get the first episode on iPlayer here, in case you missed it.

The Crusades, especially the first one, which was the subject of last night’s programme, remain controversial. In fact, they are the favourite weapon used to beat contemporary Christians in debates. Just as today’s Stalinists must be sick and tired of being reminded of the Gulag, so we Christians are often taunted with not being the peace and justice-loving community that we claim to be, by reminders that it was the Crusaders who massacred the innocent population of Jerusalem when they took the City in 1099.

But history is a nuanced subject, and people who instrumentalise the Crusades in this way simplify the whole matter. Dr Asbridge confronted the subject of the brutality of the Crusades head on, without denying it, and without polemicising it, which was good. Moreover, his was a novel approach, as least to me. Asbridge marshalled evidence that showed, overwhelmingly in his view, that the crusades were a religious movement, rather than an economic movement dressed up in religious clothing. In other words, the Crusaders, the majority of whom lost their lives on the three-year journey to Jerusalem, many of whom had left behind wealth and power in Europe, were not land-hungry adventurers, but motivated by religious impulse. It was an “armed pilgrimage” but a pilgrimage all the same.

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As for the overwhelming success of the First Crusade, this was largely the result of the fact that the Crusaders were united and their enemies were not.

All this has important implications for today. United, we can achieve even very difficult goals – and let us remember that we are in the Octave for Christian Unity. Moreover, religion is the one force that can unite disparate elements, and a single sermon (such as that of Pope Urban II which launched the Crusade) can spark a huge movement – one, indeed, that changes the world.

This is what the Catholic Encyclopaedia has to say on the matter of that sermon:

The Eastern Emperor, Alexius I, had sent an embassy to the pope asking for help against the Seljuk Turks who were a serious menace to the Empire of Constantinople. Urban succeeded in inducing many of those present to promise to help Alexius, but no definite step was taken by Urban till a few months later, when he summoned the most famous of his councils, that at Clermont in Auvergne. The council met in November, 1095; thirteen archbishops, two hundred and twenty-five bishops, and over ninety abbots answered the pope’s summons. The synod met in the Church of Notre-Dame du Port and began by reiterating the Gregorian Decrees against simony, investiture, and clerical marriage…Then the burning question of the East was discussed. Urban’s reception in France had been most enthusiastic, and enthusiasm for the Crusade had spread as the pope journeyed on from Italy. Thousands of nobles and knights had met together for the council. It was decided that an army of horse and foot should march to rescue Jerusalem and the Churches of Asia from the Saracens. A plenary indulgence was granted to all who should undertake the journey pro sola devotione, and further to help the movement, the Truce of God was extended, and the property of those who had taken the cross was to be looked upon as sacred. Those who were unfitted for the expedition were forbidden to undertake it, and the faithful were exhorted to take the advice of their bishops and priests before starting. Coming forth from the church the pope addressed the immense multitude. He used his wonderful gifts of eloquence to the utmost, depicting the captivity of the Sacred City where Christ had suffered and died–“Let them turn their weapons dripping with the blood of their brothers against the enemy of the Christian Faith. Let them–oppressors of orphans and widows, murderers and violaters of churches, robbers of the property of others, vultures drawn by the scent of battle–let them hasten, if they love their souls, under their captain Christ to the rescue of Sion.” When the pope ceased to speak a mighty shout of Deus lo volt rose from the throng. His most sanguine hopes had not anticipated such enthusiasm as now prevailed.

Deus lo volt, God wills it, indeed. It is as true then as it is now: Christians need to join together in a common and unifying cause. Pope Urban was in fact calling for a moral renewal, ironic as that must seem now, an end to Europe’s internecine strife, and a turning of energies outwards. But as Asbridge points out, the Muslims had been occupying the Holy Land for 400 years, so Urban’s picking on them as the object of the Crusade was opportunistic. Though, as Asbridge did not mention, the Turks were pressing hard against the Eastern Empire, and an invasion of Palestine undoubtedly made good sense as a diversionary tactic.

The success of Urban’s sermon is still worth reflecting on. Modern popes can speak (and often do) to even larger crowds; the average World Youth Day attracts more people than the Council of Clermont ever did. And modern popes are eloquent too – but where are the mass religious movements of our time?

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