I understand the allure of Other Times, Other Places. Indeed, I often see myself in the Himalayas, in a mountain village that has an uncanny resemblance to the Shangri-la of "Lost Horizon." The air is clear and crisp, children roll hoops in the village, holy men walk among us, we eat rice and vegetables and drink beer we brew ourselves, and modern civilization is so far away there's not a wireless "hot spot" for a thousand miles. It's a pretty great fantasy--but that's what I fear it is. A fantasy. Leonard Cohen sings, "Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows." I suspect the flip side is just as true: Even heaven is blessed with sorrow.
Well, to each her own. But the Crusades? I mean: really.
Consider, for a moment, what life was like in the 11th and 12th centuries. The streets were toilets. Men (and women) stank like badgers. Most people had no last names. Few ever saw any of the world beyond their village. Women bred until they died. Children mostly just died. You know the painting of The Harvesters, by Peter Breugel the Elder. That was idealized when he painted it in 1565. In 1100, life was far less pleasant.
Let's really puncture the bubble--let's do a quick history of The Crusades. The official call came in 1095, when Pope Urban II became concerned over Muslim rule of the Holy Land. Muslim control seemed to be weakening; the Turks had overrun Jerusalem. And Christians were not faring well:
There was talk in Christendom about relics in the Holy Land having been profaned and of Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem having been mistreated or sold into slavery.
Pope Urban II responded to the call for help from the emperor at Constantinople and organized what was to become known as the First Crusade. Urban II said Christ would lead any army that went to rescue the Holy Land. He promised a cancellation of debts, exemption from taxes and eternal life to all participants. Those who died in the crusade, he announced, would go to heaven. He described going on the Crusade as a religious duty, and in preparing for the Crusade he ordered all feuding to stop and threatened to excommunicate those who did not. He hoped that warring for the cause of Christianity abroad would be a substitute for warring at home. Gee, doesn't that sound familiar? On the Islamic side, terrorists are told they go directly to Heaven and score 77 virgins. On the American side, we see how a foreign adventure diverts our attention from troubles right here at home. Ain't History grand?
And, of course, there's the vigilante element:
In 1095, an unofficial Crusade was led by a radical monk named Peter the Hermit. He preached the Crusades to the poor peasant fanatics, and collected a small army to pilgrimage to the Holy Lands ahead of the main army. Needless to say, Peter's Quest was doomed. They behaved poorly along the route, thieving food and ransacking homes for supplies. The worst was the persecution of the Jews before even leaving Europe.The Pope's motives were expressed in high-minded rhetoric. But you know how it is. High motives never quite reach the guys in the field--the knights had their own priorities:
From five to ten thousand knights, mostly from France, volunteered for the First Crusade, along with twenty-five to fifty thousand additional soldiers. French and German nobility were in a mood for conquests and loot. For the knights the Crusade was an opportunity to emulate the great deeds of Charlemagne....
Crusaders passing through some European towns sought contributions from Jews. Jews were attacked and murdered. At Metz (in France) in early May some Jews who refused to be baptized were murdered. At Speyer (along the Rhine River) thirteen Jews were killed. There a Catholic bishop, John, gathered the Jews under his protection, and it is said that anyone he could catch who had killed Jews he punished by having their hands cut off. Later that month at Worms (also on the Rhine) perhaps 500 or more Jews were killed after crusaders broke into the Episcopal palace where the Jews had taken refuge. Another massacre occurred along the Rhine at Mainz. And more were killed at Cologne.
The cry of the crusaders on their way to combat Islam and liberate the Holy Land was "God wills it!" The knight crusaders were more successful than the peasant armies at arriving in the Holy Land, and there the knights conquered. They seized gold, silver, horses and mules and invaded houses in search of loot. Convinced that they were fighting the devil they cut down all before them. Any Muslim who did not flee Jerusalem was among those who might be cut down. In the Holy Land were many Jews. Christian knights, exuberant in victory and in their sense of power, and entertaining the belief that the Jews had killed Christ, exercised a collective punishment and massacred Jews. Jews who took refuge in Jerusalem's main synagogue were burned to death. And some crusaders were sickened and shamed by the brutality. And there was just plain crazy stuff:
Some asserted that a certain goose was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that a she goat was not less filled by the same Spirit. These they made their guides on this holy journey to Jerusalem; these they worshipped excessively; and most of the people following them, like beasts, believed with their whole minds that this was the true course.The golden goose, perhaps? But the most demented of all was The Children's Crusade:
During the crusade against heretics in southern France and northern Italy, children whose emotions were fired by the cause of Christianity and the preaching against heretics decided to do their bit by trying to retake the Holy Land. In 1212, thousands of children, with a sprinkling of adults and a few clerics, started for Jerusalem. They were deficient in money and organization but they believed that as children they were favored by God and could work miracles that adults could not.
The Children's Crusade did not have the blessing of the Church and technically was not a Church crusade. But neither ecclesiastical nor secular authorities bothered to disperse the children, except for the king of France, Philip Augustus, who, persuaded a large group of them to return home.
Children left the Rhineland in early July, 1212, and crossed the Alps. About 7,000 of them arrived at the port city of Genoa in late August -- thousands having died along the way. And at Genoa the miracle they expected failed to happen: God did not part the sea for them or allow them to walk on water as they had expected. In November, exhausted and disappointed, many went back home. Two merchants from Marseilles provided seven ships for the remaining children. Two of these ships were wrecked off the coast of Sardinia, and the children aboard the other five ships were sold on slave markets in North Africa and Egypt.
In the wake of the failures of the Children's crusade, people came to decide that the whole enterprise was the work of the devil. Success was still the work of God and the devil was still responsible for failures. But Pope Innocent III would summon Europe to another crusade, saying of the children, "They put us to shame. While they rush to recover the Holy Land, we sleep." And then they started slaughtering Muslims all over again.
Maybe I read the wrong sources. (I tried to read the Catholic Encyclopedia version of The Crusades, but it was so dully factual, so lacking in anything like a point-of-view, I gave up.) Maybe there is a heroic version of these events, with clean-shaven knights who save damsels and want to advance the cause of Christ without slaughtering anyone along the way. If so, perhaps LC could offer a source or two. Failing that, I fear The Crusades will remain, for me, the kind of historical event we know too much about--state-sponsored genocide for reasons that couldn't be less "holy."