A Brief Account of the Crusades

(Excerpted by Dr. A. Zahoor from 'For Christ's Sake' by A. Thomson and M. 'Ata'ur-Rahim)

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At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church was in an almost impossible situation. On one hand the institution was threatened with severe corruption from within its own structure. On the other hand it was faced with redundancy on account of the popularity of the teaching of the Paulicians. Furthermore its attention was divided and diverted by its involvement in the folly of the Crusades. Much of its activity at this time was directed towards attempting to halt the rapid advance of Islam and to recapture Jerusalem:

The leaders of the Vatican must have seen the marked similarity between Islam and Unitarianism as preached by Arius. Both believed in One God. Both accepted Jesus as a prophet who nevertheless was still a man. Both believed in the Virgin Mary and in the immaculate conception of Jesus, and both accepted the Holy Spirit but rejected the divinity which had been attributed to him. So the hatred for the Arians was transferred to the Muslims. Looking at the Crusades with this perspective they cease to be an isolated phenomenon of Church history, but become an extension of the massacre of the Arians by the Pauline church."  [Mary and Jesus in the Qur'an].

There is no scope in the present work to cover the phenomenon of the Crusades either in depth or detail. They began and ended in confusion, and many people died in the process. The first Crusade which began in 1096 was formed, writes Gibbon, mostly of thieves and criminals. This was the consequence of the Council of Clermont in 1095 in which the Pope proclaimed that anyone who joined the Crusade would be given full dispensation of all his sins and would be relieved of any criminal penance he might owe.

The practice of granting dispensations had been instituted in the fifth century by the Catholic Church. In return for a sum of money the Pope would grant a licence either to excuse or to permit an action which was otherwise canonically illegal....

As a result of the decree of the Council of Clermont, anyone who had committed some wrong action, from theft to murder, flocked under the banner of the cross. The rabble of 60,000 men and women pillaged their way across Europe. On reaching Hungary they came face to face with Paulicians whose forefathers had originally been driven north from Thrace by the persecution of the Empress Theodora and her successors. There was a major battle, and two-thirds of the Crusaders were killed. The survivors took refuge in the mountains of Thrace. The Emperor of Constantinople came to their rescue and safely conducted them to the city. When they reached Constantinople, its treasures proved a great temptation for them. They would have plundered the city had the Emperor not swiftly conducted them over the Bosphorus.

Reinforcements of better-trained soldiers were sent to join the remnants of the first Crusaders. When, led by Godfrey, they arrived at Constantinople, they proceeded to fight the Emperor and laid siege to the city. The Emperor, however, managed to bribe and persuade them to hold to their original plan which was to fight the Muslims and to take Jerusalem, and they too were conducted across the Bosphorus. Godfrey eventually reached and conquered Jerusalem in 1099.

The Second Crusade was undertaken forty-eight years after the fall of Jerusalem in 1147 in order to support the survivors of the First Crusade. The gates of the cities both in Europe and Asia were closely barred against the Crusaders, and food was only let down to them from the walls in baskets. This food was of the poorest quality, stale, and often unfit for human consumption. The Crusaders were plagued by famine and pestilence. Many of them died before they reached Palestine. The survivors were killed in battle. Jerusalem was reconquered by the Muslims in 1187.

The Third Crusade, led by, among others, King Richard of England, failed to recapture Jerusalem. Richard returned to England in 1192 with the remnants of an army which had been decimated by shipwreck and battle.

The Fourth Crusade chose an easier object of conquest and, despite the fact that Constantinople was in the hands of the Official Christians, succeeded where the first two crusades had failed. In 1203, they burst into the ancient capital of the East, pillaging and plundering. The churches were ransacked, and the booty from them not only subsequently popularized the practice of image-worship in the west, but also greatly increased the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church:

The most enlightened of the strangers, above the gross and sensual pursuits of their countrymen, more piously exercised the right of conquest in the search and seizure of the relics of the saints. Immense was the supply of heads and bones, crosses and images, that were scattered by this revolution over the churches of Europe; and such was the increase of pilgrimage and oblation, that no branch, perhaps, of more lucrative plunder was imported from the east. Of the writings of antiquity, many that still existed in the twelfth century are now lost...without computing the extent of our loss, we may drop a tear over the libraries that have perished in the triple fire of Constantinople. [Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, VII, p. 385].

Despite the wealth which accrued from the sack of Constantinople, the Crusades were a costly business, not only financially but in terms of lives. With the growth of the Paulician movement in France, the Catholic Church was forced to direct its attention towards securing its position in Europe itself. This change in emphasis was probably one of the major reasons for the failure of the Fifth Crusade, which started in 1218. The Church had committed itself to attacking the Muslims of Sicily and North Africa, the Muslims of Turkey and Palestine, the Muslims of Spain, and now the Paulician Catharii of France. It was impossible to maintain a successful degree of aggression on all fronts at all four points of the compass for very long. Inevitably the Church was forced to reduce its ambitious activities, and to direct its attention towards its enemies who were nearest Rome.

The 'Poor Men of Lyons', who wore robes and sandals, emulating Jesus, soon met with opposition from the Official Church, for they refused to worship Jesus as God....In about 1190, they joined with the Paulician Catharii. Their numbers were now so large that the Catholic Church was in danger of being superseded and replaced by them. They rejected the whole structure of the priesthood of the Official Church as an innovation, for they knew that every human being has direct access to God. They had their own gospels, written in Romance. These were accessible to all who wished to read them, which was very popular with the people who, under the rule of the Catholic Church, had very little access even to the official gospels.

Thus for instance Fra. Fulgentio was reprimanded by the Pope in a letter saying, 'Preaching of the Scriptures is a suspicious thing. He who keeps close to the Scripture will ruin the Catholic faith.' In his next letter he was more explicit, warning against too much insistence on the scriptures 'which is a book if anyone keeps close to, he will quite destroy the Catholic Church.'

The only way the Official Church could maintain its status quo was by suppression, repression and oppression.


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Copyright © 1996 'For Christ's Sake' by A. Thomson and M. 'Ata'ur-Rahim.
Copyright © 1998 Web Version by Dr. A. Zahoor.


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