Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
-Sting, "Children's Crusade"
The crusades, we're told, were the worst example of Christian history, proof that Christians were at least as bad as the modern terrorist, and the root of why the terrorist exists today. Why, if it weren't for evil Christian knights from the west invading Arabic nations, they would not be so angry at us today. It all started with white Christian Europeans.
Watch any film or read any book about the crusades today, and it will be all about how horrible the knights acted - and how badly they were defeated by the Muslims. It is about hot sun making western armor unwearable, how Christians massacred thousands of innocent people, and about the Roman Catholic Church's greed and lust for the riches of the region. And, of course, the "children's crusade" when kids by the thousand climbed onto ships to invade the region, confident God would give them victory as cackling wicked bishops lined up on the shore, rubbing their hands in maniacal glee.
From the most recent attempt at Robin Hood, where Robin leaves the service of arrogant and power hungry King Richard to the evil knights in Kingdom of Heaven, lately it seems that Ridley Scott has a particular interest in this depiction.
Today, using the word "crusade" has a nasty sound to it, so much so that President Bush had to retract mentioning it in his speech on a fight against Islamic extremists. The pope recently apologized for the crusades, which happened centuries before his grandparents were born.
Like most of these, there's some truth to the common knowledge, and a lot of falsehood. For example, there was a "Children's Crusade" but it wasn't what is usually claimed.
The best historical data now available from studies of ancient documents reveals that there were two children's crusades, both in the early 1200s.
The second was another shepherd boy named Stephen, a 12 year old from France. He led about 30,000 adults and young people across France to the king who refused to see a child, and then to the coast, where they begged food (typical of pilgrims) and eventually dissipated despite the child's charismatic speaking ability.
However, the most modern research indicates that these "children" were most likely not as young as originally believed. Economic hardship in the time period resulted in large groups of wandering peasants who had to sell their land, and they were referred to as "children" by the general population, a semi-derisive term (think more calling a black man "boy" than referring to a young person). Both crusades appear to be made up largely of these sort of children, which led to later confusion and retelling of events, probably not in any small part by less than friendly voices. It only took a few generations for "children" to become literally little kids.
So yes, there were children's crusades, and they failed miserably, but they didn't involve waves of little children, sent to their doom by evil religious leaders.
As for the crusades themselves, well here's where there's a strange reversal. As Jonah Goldberg writes in Tyrrany of Cliches (excerpted at Big Government):
Until fairly recently, historically speaking, Muslims used to brag about being the winners of the Crusades, not the victims of it. That is if they talked about them at all.The truth of the matter is that the Crusades were a response to Muslim aggression, fought to push back invaders. Islam began expanding by the sword in the 5th century, conquering Jerusalem in 638 after taking over the rest of what was then called Palestine (the Roman term for Israel). For centuries after that, Muslims took more and more land, taking Egypt, Tunisia, Rhodes, Sicily, even parts of France and Spain. Almost all of the former Roman Empire was conquered by Islam.
By the 11th century, Muslims had been driven out of France and the Byzantine Empire, although greatly reduced, was still surviving, and Byzantium had fought off several waves of Islamic invaders. Emperor Alexius I petitioned Pope Urban II in 1095 for help fighting the Muslims, to throw them out of what was referred to as the "Holy Land" for its Biblical history. A church council was held in Clermont, France, and a plea was sent out by the Pope to free the lands from Muslim invaders.
Now, you have to understand something about medieval warfare. To be able to fight to protect your lands or conquer others, you had to have a ready force, but that force consisted of landed, wealthy knights and specialist forces such as archers. These people had to be kept in training (thus the existence of tournaments where martial skill was demonstrated) and paid. Knights were virtually autonomous, and if they weren't kept busy at war tended to find mischief on their own and cause troubles for the king. So a chance to get these guys active and out of your hair was welcomed by many rulers.
Another feature of medieval warfare was plunder. All warfare for most of human existence was characterized not just by political goals and gains (territory, protecting your people, etc) but by the money. Soldiers were allowed to keep whatever they looted and found from their enemies. Kings got a cut of all the loot that was collected (the lion's share). Conquered knights and nobles were held hostage, kept until a ransom was paid to set them free again - often bankrupting the region. When the Pope sent out word, the response was enthusiastic.
And I don't mean to make this sound entirely mercenary. Nobody would have thought it that way at the time, this was a valid and proper way for a monarch to make money for the kingdom, and it didn't involve taxes. Most people in the 11th century had little money to pay the king anyway, taxes were largely in the form of labor and goods. But there was a certain religious aspect to this as well. Muslims had taken over the holiest place on earth, as the church understood it at the time. This is where apostles and prophets had walked and were buried. This is where Jesus Christ preached and died, now trodden on and conquered by people who, the Medieval people believed, taught a false faith.
So there was a sense of injustice and even blasphemy involved. But make no mistake, the Crusades were a response to Muslim aggression. Yes, it took a while, primarily because news and events traveled a lot slower back then. Most people had no idea that Muslims had taken over Jerusalem, let alone the rest of Palestine, until the Pope brought it up.
The first crusade had its problems. A "people's crusade" made up of basically unemployed people and zealots looted and burned their way across Byzantine lands, unclear on their targets, and were obliterated by Turkish forces. Another group was led by Count Emicho who either wasn't sure who Muslims were or just hated Jews and slaughtered Jewish Europeans across the Rheinland instead of going to the holy land.
The main armies of the Crusades were very successful, however, and focused on their task at hand. They conquered the city of Antioch, marched south and took Jerusalem in 1099, which was no small feat. Jerusalem was nearly impossible to beat due to its very strong walls and mountainous position. It took the Muslims almost 100 years to take the place, and Muhammad himself gave up after a try. The Crusaders headed south, taking city after city and often taking the Muslim armies by surprise, since communication was difficult and slow at the time. Indeed, that's how many of the Muslim victories were won as well.
There were slaughters (as there had been before, by Muslim conquerors). Turkish prisoners were beheaded at the base of Antioch's walls. Once in the city of Jerusalem, the Crusaders massacred the Muslim garrison and many Jewish inhabitants.
Again, a historical note here: sieges were horrific, and stayed that way well into the 19th century. Men died and struggled horrendously against the walls, and the longer and harder it was to make it through, the more berserk and enraged they were once they got through. Commanders could not control them, and they would simply ransack the town in a red mist of fury after their awful experience and the death around them. This was not unique to Christians or Europeans, it happened everywhere sieges were laid, by everyone. Any exceptions were extremely rare and astounding. That doesn't make it right, just not unusual for the time - and you'll tend to read it written as if the Crusaders were uniquely and distinctly horrible for this behavior. As Christian theology goes, they were, but as history goes... no.
The Crusaders had accomplished their goals in a surprisingly short time period, capturing the entire holy land as far south as Ascalon, setting up "crusader states" to hold the land while the bulk of the armies went home. They held Jerusalem for almost 100 years against repeated invasion, wearing their big metal armor plates (so did the Muslims, in different designs), despite the heat.
Over time, Muslim forces took the land back, then the Crusaders came and took more land and it went back and forth. However, after that initial success and the first crusade's triumphs, it became less and less about winning land back from a Muslim invader, and more and more about holding land for kings to get rich off of and getting rid of annoying or troublesome lords and knights.
The Middle East was the crossroads for three continents, and Israel in particular was the main crossroad. All the riches of Africa, Asia, and Europe would pass through these lands on their way between the continents, and as a result it became a disproportionately wealthy and influential region. Controlling that area meant control of a lot of money. And what's more, many rare and exotic spices, dyes, and other goods could be obtained in that area and no where else in Europe, so trade was very good for whoever controlled those lands.
Groups such as the Knights Templar (who controlled the Jerusalem kingdom) became very wealthy and powerful as a result. The knights of Malta did the same thing in control of the Mediterranean. So holding those lands and being the one in charge was worth a lot to the kings in question. It became not so much about throwing out the invader and more about fat bank, and fights between Byzantium and various kings in Europe were constant.
Eventually, though, the Muslims won. They did so primarly because of the lack of unity which so characterized the first crusade and the brilliant leadership of several Muslim leaders, particularly Saladin. Disorganized, squabbling and political game playing Europeans faced a zealous, united Muslim front and eventually were worn down and defeated. Nine crusades later, and Islam controlled the region, holding it until the 1940s.
So its a mixed bag,but one thing is absolutely clear: the Crusades were a response to Muslim aggression and conquest, not the reverse, as is usually taught. There were horrors and massacres and evils done by both sides, as always happens in war. War is evil, it is sheer hell, and every one has its especially hellish moments. But in the end, the common knowledge on this is just as flawed as it is in so many areas.
A timeline of the period in question is available at the Latin Library.
Raedts, P (1977). "The Children's Crusade of 1213". Journal of Medieval History
Russell, Oswald, "Children's Crusade", Dictionary of the Middle Ages, 1989
This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.