Interview: Christopher Tyerman Discusses His Book on the Crusades

Weekend Edition Sunday: February 27, 2005

A New Examination of the Crusades


In the days following September 11th, 2001, President Bush reached for words to describe the developing war on terrorism and also urged the American people to be patient.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.

KAST: The president's use of the word `crusade' evoked parallel images with the Christian holy wars of the 11th and 12th centuries. Mr. Bush has not again publicly used the word `crusade' to characterize the war on terrorism, but long-standing perceptions of the Crusades are woven into discussions of conflict between Christianity and Islam, between West and East.

In a new study, "Fighting for Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades," British historian Christopher Tyerman challenges many assumptions about the epic conflicts that began when Pope Urban II summoned Christians to invade areas of the Middle East in 1095. Christian troops conquered Jerusalem, killing most of the city's inhabitants, and Western-sponsored states were established in Syria and Palestine. In his book, Professor Tyerman writes, `Most of what passes in public as knowledge of the Crusades is either misleading or false.' I spoke with him this past week from Oxford, England. Our conversation began with Professor Tyerman explaining some of the most glaring misconceptions about the Crusades.

Professor CHRISTOPHER TYERMAN (Historian): In current circumstances, the most egregious mistake is to see the Crusade as a precursor of modern conflicts in the Near East, which it wasn't. It's an entirely discrete exercise. There are parallels, of course, but the point about parallel lines is they do not meet. I think the equation of crusading with modern political problems is deliberate on both sides in order to conceal the real problems, which are to do with politics, identity, economics, water, land, etc. The prevalent myth that somehow the Crusades were a barbaric assault on a superior, sophisticated and peaceful Islam is a nonsense. But equally, that Islam was this superior, beneficent force for good, wrecked by these evil Westerners, is equally nonsensical.

KAST: Were the Crusades imperialism as we think of it today, a yearning to colonize?

Prof. TYERMAN: There was no strategic reason for Western knights and soldiers to be laboring about in the Judean hills in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. They were there for essentially ideological religious reasons. The Holy Land and Jerusalem were regarded as part of Christendom, as a relic, and the Crusaders went there, in a sense, to establish a protective garrison to restore, as they saw it, their holy city to Christian control. But the prime motive of crusading in the Holy Land, unlike crusading in Spain or in Baltic, was not initially that of settlement. If you wanted to make a profit, you did not go on Crusade. Crusaders habitually made thumping losses.

KAST: Thumping losses financially and also there was a high death toll, right?

Prof. TYERMAN: Of the aristocrats, it has been calculated that probably over a third died or were killed on each major campaign, and of the lesser crusaders, the attrition was probably much higher. Some people calculate it as much as 70 or 80 percent. The main profits, I think, that many people saw was the spiritual indulgence, the time off purgatory, the prospect of heaven and, of course, relics, which were important.

KAST: And you describe the enthusiasm with which men volunteered for the Crusades really saw themselves and the army they were joining as instruments of God's will. Talk to us about that.

Prof. TYERMAN: The whole idea of a holy war is different from that of a just war. The Crusade was a holy war; therefore, it was a devotional practice in itself. A just war is a legal form of war that excuses war, but admits that war is an evil. Holy war says that the war engaged in is a holy act in itself. The actual killing and fighting is in accordance with God's will. `God's will' was the slogan of the crusaders. And the enthusiasm that was generated was particularly marked because in the 11th and 12th century, the teaching of the church in the West assumed that laymen were sinners, and here was an opportunity for sinful men to pursue what they were good at--campaigning and fighting--and in doing so, conduct a religious exercise and, therefore, gain spiritual merit and benefit.

KAST: Are the Crusades parallel to the idea of jihad in Islam?

Prof. TYERMAN: Jihad is slightly different. There is a common heritage between the three Abrahamic faiths--Christianity, Judaism and Islam--that God can instruct his people as a religious duty to fight a war. In Islam, the jihad, meaning struggle, can be interpreted in two ways. There is the greater jihad, the jihad al akbar, which is largely a spiritual, an internal and personal struggle for spiritual purity. There is the lesser jihad, the jihad al-Asgar(ph), which is expressed in military terms, particularly against infidels. It's an external expression of the struggle for spiritual purity. And at different periods and different Islamic groups and different places, the idea that every Muslim is ordered to take up arms against every infidel is contradicted by the Koran, by Islamic law and by Islamic history. So it is more complicated.

KAST: And so how do you think we should look back on the Crusades or how should we be holding them in memory today?

Prof. TYERMAN: I think that you should--well, we should look at the Crusades as a very striking phenomenon of a very different sort of society in the Middle Ages, a society nonetheless that gave birth to all sorts of ideas that led to the Enlightenment, to the age of reason. The Crusades should not be discounted as a barbaric eccentricity. The role of violence in Christianity, the role of violence as a tool of state-building, of identity-building, of expression, of human ambitions, either temporal or spiritual, is an important lesson. We tend, I think. today to think that we are wiser than our predecessors, and I think we're not. And I think if we looked at the Crusades directly, we will see that many of the solutions that 12th-century people reached in reaction to their desires and problems have, as I say, parallels, not connections, to what we do today.

KAST: Professor Christopher Tyerman's latest history is "Fighting for Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades," published by Oxford University Press. Thank you.

Prof. TYERMAN: Thank you.

KAST: You are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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