Onward, Lukewarm Christian Soldiers

A scholar says it's impossible to understand the Crusades without recognizing that religious belief inspired its fighters.

BY: Interview by Laura Sheahen

In the Ridley Scott movie "Kingdom of Heaven," a French blacksmith-Balian of Ibelin-goes on crusade to Jerusalem, where he battles the Muslim leader Saladin. Thomas F. Madden, professor and chair of the department of history at Saint Louis University and editor of Crusades: The Illustrated History, spoke to Beliefnet about how the film handled religion.

What did you think of the movie?

Well, I don't think its purpose is to be a documentary. They paid a lot of attention to getting arms and armor correct, but they weren't much interested in portraying the way people in the Middle Ages viewed their religion, the Crusades, or the Holy Land.

The thing that struck me most was how little religion had to do with the Crusades in this movie. The only religious people in this movie are fanatics. All of the good guys either have no religion, or are openly hostile to religion.

Yes, they're sort of benignly agnostic, but certainly not very devout.

Those are concepts just foreign to the Middle Ages, either on the Christian or Muslim side.

How plausible is it that there would have been such tolerance between Muslims and Christians at that time and in that region?

That's plausible. In the kingdom of Jerusalem at that time, Muslims were allowed to practice their religion-not in the city, but everywhere else in the crusader kingdom. When the crusaders held Jerusalem from 1099-1187, they adopted the Muslim practice [whereby] Christians and Jews were allowed to keep their religion, but had to pay a special tax for not converting. The Christians reversed that-they charged the Muslims. The tax was seen as a bit of a humiliation.

There was no attempt to convert the Muslims.

The groups tended to keep to themselves-Christians, Muslims, Jews.

The movie portrays good Christians and bad Christians; the bad ones say things like, "to kill an infidel is not murder." Wouldn't the Christians coming from predominantly Christian lands want to convert or kill Muslims, and not be interested in living peacefully?

A crusader is someone who was planning to go there and come back. There were also other people who came there to settle. They were perfectly tolerant of individual Muslims, but about a Muslim state that they saw as a threat to the Holy Land-all of the Crusades were called in reaction to the Muslims having conquered something.

The crusaders who came from Europe came to undo whatever that thing was. When they arrived, they were frequently surprised that the local Christians who had lived there for generations, including the military orders-the Templars and Hospitallers-were used to living as neighbors to Muslim states. They had deals and understandings with them.

The people who came from the west found it difficult to understand how you could make these deals with people they had come to push out of those regions.

The purpose of the kingdom was to safeguard the holy sites.

Which sites were most revered?

The most important was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that covered Golgotha, where the crucifixion occurred, and the tomb of Christ. I thought it was odd in the movie that [Balian] has to ask some holy man where the hill is, and it's just sort of a barren hill. Everyone would know that place was within the church of the Holy Sepulchre, an incredibly ornate and beautiful church.

The religion in this movie is extremely sterilized. You would have expected in this period to see lots of religious symbolism. There are no churches in the movie. Even the crosses in the movie are all very bland--none are crucifixes, which is what crosses would have been in the Middle Ages.

You mean on the crusaders' clothes?

Not on the crusaders' clothes, but a gold cross, a processional cross or a cross on an altar would have been a crucifix. The only time you see something remotely religious is during the knighting ceremony where Balian's father gives him his oath. Behind him there's an altar with a chalice on it. It's a post-Vatican II altar-one designed for the priest to face the congregation, as near as I could tell. There's no religious artwork on it-there should be a diptych-there's just a lot of candles. Looks like a Catholic chapel you'd see today.

If you strip religion out--which he does--it's impossible to understand why they're fighting over Jerusalem.

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