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Believe it or not, the new BBC series on the Crusades is excellent

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

By on Thursday, 19 January 2012

Dr Thomas Asbridge presents the first episode of The Crusades

Dr Thomas Asbridge presents the first episode of The Crusades

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.

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?

  • Lazarus

    Not sure that I had quite so favourable a view of the programme. If I were being cynical, it sounded for a lot of the time like a typical New Atheist take: ‘Look, they were all driven by religion -and look what it made them do!’ Not much about it being a response to Islamic aggression. Not much thought about how soldiering and religion might be compatible. Not much thought about the nature of mediaeval religion beyond the claim that they were all scared of going to hell. It did have many good points though and it’s indeed hard to know quite how one should treat the combination of genuine piety with a tendency to wade in blood. I did come away with a greater awareness of and respect for the Crusaders’ courage. 

  • Brian A. Cook

    I did see a program on the Inquisition from the BBC that was likewise fair and balanced.  I am now slightly more convinced that the Inquisition was not a campaign of extermination.  Still, there’s a lot of difficult history to deal with.  I am convinced that, if people did instinctively hear the voice of God in the Church as some claim, then the Church would face scrutiny precisely for that reason. 

  • ms Catholic state

    I didn’t see this programme….but I too have a lot of admiration for the Crusaders.  They left hearth and home to go and fight against Saracen invaders of Eastern Orthodox lands.  I believe it was in response to a cry for help from the leader of the Orthdox to Pope Urban that the Crusaders responded.  The Orthodox had splt from the Catholic Church just 10 years previously.  When I first heard this I was amazed at the unselfishness of the Catholic Crusaders… it wasn’t even in defence of fellow Catholics that they had responded.

    This program needs to be balanced….as we don’t want any repurcussions against Catholics drummed up by biased programmes or presenters!

  • AJ

    I watched it, preparing myself to wince at misrepresentations of or snide comments about Catholicism, but I couldn’t fault it factually. What did let it down though, I thought, was the over-the-top editing: the Latin chant in the background, for example, seemingly calculated to sound sinister. The melodrama wasn’t necessary.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Agreed re the music. Some of it sounded like Stockhausen to me.

  • Vince

    I can only recommend on this subject Thomas Madden’s book “The New Concise History of the Crusades”. Clear and easy to read, Thomas’ only agenda are facts and history, not ideologies.

  • Victorweston

    Dr Asbridge stated Pope Urban “created” the reasons for the Crusade, but did not effectively demonstrate that this was the case; he seemed to discredit Pope Urban’s motives
    He also alleged the Christians who took part were in some way religious “fanatics”, demeaning their vocation thereby
    His underlying agenda appears to discount any current “threat” by Islam; but this may be objectively laid out by case after case after case worldwide of persecution – &, what ought to be the Church’s response?

  • theroadmaster

    The trendy, politically-correct way to designate the epoch of the Crusades as being inspired and fought by religious zealots, has taken such a hold of the modern attitude to this period, that is almost seems fruitless to present an alternative, more balanced view of the motivations of the Latin Christian armies.  One cannot simply attribute in a generalized fashion, base, selfish motives to  men who  forsook the safety of their homelands in order to  bear arms thousands of miles away in territory where their Faith was originally founded by an Itinerant Nazarene carpenter, God made Man, over a thousand years earlier.  We can recognize the horrific nature of some of the  incidents which unfortunately took place over the course of the Crusades, without downplaying the noble religious motives which brought aristocrats and commoners to the defense of fellow Christians and the revered holy places in the Middle Eastern region.  One of the nobler aspects of the often bitter struggle to retake the conquered territory back, was the chivalric respect exhibited to eachother by two of the iconic figures of the Second Crusade, namely King Henry 1(The Lionheart) of England and his legendary adversary, Saladin, the Kurdish fox during the Third Crusade in the 12th Century.

  • theroadmaster

    I mean’t the third crusade and not the second as indicated in my last point.

  • Anonymous

    So far this series is politically correct to the point of omission, with a disingenuous logic that claims the context of history is irrelevant.
    As such it becomes just subtle propaganda.

  • jaybird1951

    You are only “slightly more convinced that the Inquisition was not a campaign of extermination?” Modern scholars of the period now estimate that the Spanish Inquisition took the lives of around 5,000 over a period exceeding 300 years. Not the millions still claimed or believed by many. How does that even come remotely close to anybody’s definition of extermination? The irony is that the inquisition courts were more fairly constructed and operated than the civil courts of the time. I stress: of the time.

  • Bomber1037

    What a joke this article is…. i just watched this programme after trusting the glowing endorsement only to find the usual BBC hit piece. I want my hour back. OK, so it wasn’t the unabashed full frontal assault we Catholics are so familiar with in the main stream media but it was still heavily bias against Christianity (Catholics) and all but painted fluffy clouds and flowers on everyone else when it was not ignoring vast junks of History. Within the first five minutes the Popes motives are trashed and people answering his call to action are described as ‘fanatics’.
    I would suggest the writer of this article wake up and smell the coffee…….
    The programme did make one good point, that when Christians unite they are a formidable adversary. I look forward to the day when that happens rather our own gate keepers in our own so called Catholic media telling us we can drop our guards, its OK now, as we take another unanswered punch to the  nose…..

  • David Quinn

    I can’t agree the programme was excellent. It didn’t come even close to properly contextualising Urban II’s call for a crusade. To do this Asbridge should have shown the way in which the Turks had conquered most of the Byzantine Empire only recently and were threatening Constantinople with the next stop being Europe itself. He should have also pointed out that for four centuries Christendom was largely on the defensive against a very aggressive Muslim world. He should have made much more of the fact that the Byzantine Emperor had asked the Pope for assistance. He should have been more honest about the attacks on pilgrims trying to make their way to Jerusalem, and on the Holy Places. Instead, Asbridge made it appears as though Urban conjured up the First Crusade out of almost nothing for entirely cynical reasons. Not good enough.

  • Paul Halsall

    Thomas Madden is a find historian, but he certainly does have an agenda. He writes in for American Neo-Con journals, and is an overtly Catholic historian.

  • Schreiber

    I disagree. As I just wrote at IMDB:

    Summary: Good story. Useless visuals.

    I just watched the first episode of this series. I wouldn’t watch
    another. The narration is good, giving a decent description of events.
    But it really could have been a radio program, because the visuals
    added almost nothing to the story. We saw the face of the narrator far
    too much, only because they had nothing else to show us, and other
    descriptions were illustrated by nearly irrelevant shots of modern
    cities–hundreds of street scenes of modern cities–landscapes, burning
    candles, horses’ feet (for a cavalry charge, you see), with hardly
    three or four maps. The only serious illustration of the crusade came
    from a medieval illuminated manuscript, but we saw only two or three
    images, shown over and over again. I found myself looking around the
    room and at the ceiling occasionally, simply because there was nothing
    on the screen worth watching.Get a decent book on the crusades if you’re interested in the topic, a
    simple one will do, with lots of good illustrations. You will enjoy it
    more than this series.

  • History Buff

     I agree with David Quinn’s comments below. T. Asbridge is described as ‘Dr’ and has a post at QMC  but his narrative is both shallow and overblown, full of hype but with no intellectual depth. OK that is the standard formula for TV historical documentaries these days but that doesn’t make it good. And compare this programme with anything by David Starkey and its banality is obvious.

    Asbridge’s thesis appeared to be that the Crusades happened because the Pope was losing influence badly (no mention of changes in the Middle East, hundreds of years of invasions and conquests of Christian lands by Muslims, or of the fact that Gregory VII had actually taken papal power to it apogee in the previous few decades) and so needed a diversionary campaign. Then lots of stuff to show how blood thirsty the eleventh century world was but illustrated with footage of the Christian world. More (misleading) hype about new sources, and so the dire caravan of clichés lınked to dazzling photography moves on.

    I got a better [and more informative] account in a history lesson when I was nıne or ten, many decades ago. All Asbridge and his fan Fr Lucie Smith do is demonstrate is the intellectual decline of Britain.

  • Diogenes Cynic the Dog

    Those who left great wealth and power behind in the West were after something even greater in the East…greater wealth and even greater power….imagine a great lord of Europe being able to be listed as a King or Count of Jerusalem or an eastern tributary defending or supplying Jerusalem in some crucial way…..this was a roundabout way of gaining the kind of prestige which had been enjoyed by the Holy Roman Emperor…if not greater…and may have been seen by many of manuoevring themselves or their descendants for a shot at the post of Holy Roman Emperor. To think otherwise is to be very naive indeed…read about them and you will be amazed how cynical and opportunistic they were. Don’t take my word for it, do the research first and then do the math….besides the east was far much more developed than the west at the time, because of the collapse of civilisation which had followed the fall of the Roman empire….and the snail paced evolution of western culture that had emerged from the Dark Ages because of the shackles of religion and superstition….in contrast, the east had continued to evolve without any gaps…until like any human invention…it began to go back on itself and decay with age, corruption, greed and social inequality.

  • Adc

    This is what the EDL is now calling for.

  • Anon

    I don’t see any commentaries that answer the bold question at the end of the review: “where are the mass religious movements of our time?” The author states that religion is the one force that can unite disparate elements. Look around yourselves. Islamic migration, creeping Sharia and Islamic jihad are assaulting us in THE mass religious movement of our time. When and how will we fight it? If not answered soon it will destroy our culture, not to mention our freedom and our ability to worship and serve Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.