What Is Your Middle Schooler Being Taught About the Crusades?

Update 9/17/14: With the start of a new school year, I’m circulating this post again. It is particularly relevant now since we are witnessing, in real time, the violent nature of a large and fanatical Islamic army. I don’t understand how anyone can criticize the motives for the Crusades now that we see, in ISIS, something like the aggression that provoked them. Europe and the Near East has been dealing with versions of ISIS for almost 1400 years.

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Yesterday, something interesting happened: my daughter asked me to print out her 7th grade Social Studies homework, which was a lesson on the Crusades. Coincidentally, I was teaching the same subject that evening, and what I saw in my daughter’s lessons drove home the absolutely necessity of Catholics telling our own story and teaching our own history.

I’ve been teaching Church history to 8th Grade Confirmation candidates for 6 years, and I’ve developed a series of history lessons that are taught to multiple classes each year. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the controversies of our history in order to better teach them to the students. I never whitewash it. I tell my student, “We have not always been as good as we should have been, but we have never been as bad as our enemies have said.” The truth is usually in the middle of two extreme views.

In the interest of understanding what they’ve already been taught, I’ve read several middle school textbooks over the years, and found all of them deficient. Even textbooks intended for Catholic schools leave a lot to be desired. The current trend is to minimize the horrors of Islamic history (their role in the slave trade and their violent military expansionism are glossed over or left out altogether) and amplify the evils of Christians and the Church. None of this should be news to any observant Christian parent.

Yesterday’s lesson was an eye-opener, however, and I ran my red pen all over the handout that was to serve as my daughter’s source, before scribbling a final grade of “C+” at the bottom. It was a rude thing to do, since my daughter likes the teacher and she’s only working the material given her, much of which is weak in several important areas. I wrote a follow-up email explaining my problems, and she was very responsive. We’re happy with our school and our teachers, and none of this is a knock on them.

To begin with, there’s the oft-repeated lie that this was an unjust, terrible, super-wrong series of misadventure by no-good Christians to wrest control of the Holy Land from innocent, wise, and gentle Muslims in the name of greed and God.

Muslim designs on Europe? The clashes with the Byzantine Empire, the conquest of North Africa, and the occupation of Spain? The Battle of Tours? Charles “The Hammer” Martel? The differences among Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Seljuqs and others? The attempt to conquer Europe through the gateway of Constantinople? The destruction of the Holy Sepulcher (twice) by Muslims? The expulsion and murder of Christians from the Holy Land? The wholesale robbery and murder of pilgrims?

Pshaw! Don’t bother the kids with facts! The text-book writers prefer easily digestible pap with noble non-white heroes and wicked European Christian villains. Forget that Muslims were not only the aggressors, but had powerful, expansive empires when Europe was little more than a batch of quarrels with borders. If we’re talking size and power, the Crusader armies were the underdogs.

Let’s look at what bothered me, and keep in mind it follows right on the heels of a section in which Islam is presented as all lollipops and puppies.

Crusaders were particularly vicious in their attacks. Before they even reached the Holy Land, crusaders lay waste to the Jewish communities of Western Europe. Members of the Jewish community had been expelled from England and France. Many were forced to live in ghettos. Entire Jewish towns were completely wiped out by crusaders. Jewish men, women, children were all slaughtered and robbed of their possessions. Some committed suicide or killed their own children rather than being killed by crusaders, or forced to convert.

Note the absence of any qualifiers: not “some crusaders” but “crusaders were particularly vicious.” All of them. Note also the rather reckless and inaccurate use of the word “all” in reference to the slaughter, and the suggestions that the crusader armies committed wholesale genocide against the Jews of Europe.

The history of European interaction with the Jewish population is complex and often disgraceful, but too much is glossed, exaggerated, or left unsaid in this passage. The resulting image is of crusaders being commissioned for a Holy War and killing every Jew they find along the way, destroying their towns, and salting the Earth beneath them.

The lesson is blending two things: peasants who attacked Jews, and the fringe group of crusaders who committed the despicable Rhineland Massacres in 1096. Peter the Hermit’s mob of zealots also alternately killed and robbed Jews. There were crusaders on both sides of the fight: Emicho of Leiningen whipped his men into an anti-semitic mob, while Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV ordered them protected.

Christians in Mainz sheltered them in their homes. Adalbert, Bishop of Worms, sheltered Jews in the episcopal palace, only to have the mob overrun it and kill perhaps 800 Jews. Ruthard, Bishop of Mainz, barred the crusaders from the city and with the help of the Jews attempted to bribe them to go elsewhere. They took the gold and attacked anyway, leaving over a thousand dead. Stories are told of at least one mother who killed her children to keep them from their hands, and of a Jewish man killing himself in shame after submitting to a forced conversion. There’s no reason to disbelieve these stories.

As for “members of the Jewish community had been expelled from England and France” … not quite.

Orders of expulsion were going on in various places in Europe and would continue for centuries, and France around the time of the Crusaders saw waves of this as well. As for England in 1095, they hardly had much of a Jewish population at all. Jews arrived with the Normans in 1066. King Edward’s Edict of Expulsion didn’t come until 1290 (almost 200 years after that First Crusade), and even then the population of English Jews was fewer than 2,000. No Jews were expelled from England as part of the manic zeal of the First Crusade for the very sound reason that England had almost no Jews to expel at the time.

And where was the Church in all this? It’s kind of an interesting question that might be of interest to middle school students, no? After all, there’s no shortage of detail about how bad ole Urban II had called this crusade, so naturally he must have approved of wholesale slaughter of the Jews, right?

Obviously, if you know your faith, you know the opposite is the case. Under the influence of Augustine’s Witness Doctrine, popes issued edicts of protection for Jews, and bishops sheltered or attempted to shelter them. Orders against forced conversions were issued repeatedly, and repeatedly ignored by the mob. Heroic stands by great Catholic leaders might be worth a passing mention, one would think.

When St. Bernard of Clairvaux was preaching the Second Crusade, he explicitly condemned the actions against the Jews taken during the First in order to prevent it from happening again. Urban II condemned the murders, and ordered protection of Jewish life and property.

(Note: Several popes did issue antisemitic orders in defiance of the Witness Doctrine. Innocent III and Paul IV are among those who ordered Jews to wear distinct signs of their faith, be prohibited from higher office, or moved into ghettos. It was as wrong, but it was not the norm, and property and life were to be protected.)

Certainly, the Crusades saw the first sustained outbreak of antisemitism in Europe. Leaders like Godfrey of Bouillon thought a crusade to save the Holy Land would be worthless if Europe’s own Jews were left unconverted or alive.

The Church didn’t share these views, and insistently pronounced against them, but too often they were ignored.

Why? That brings us to the second reason: it was widely believed that all Jews were spectacularly wealthy, and some crusaders coveted their gold. Indeed, the “zealotry” of these alleged radical Jew haters often could be bought with a bribe, which tells us their zealotry often was a mask for their greed.

Finally, there’s a third reason. A letter (most likely a forgery) was in circulation that allegedly proved prominent European Jews had written to the the Fatimid caliph urging the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This libel helped stoke antisemitic sentiment.

Moving on:

Crusader atrocities continued when they reached the holy land. After capturing the city of Antioch, crusaders committed an unimaginable act – they committed cannibalism. They ate Muslims as a show of their utter disregard for Muslims. In other words, the crusaders viewed Muslims as no more that animals.

Whoa! That’s some pretty wild shootin’, Tex!

Widespread crusader cannibalism is one of the libels that’s become embedded in the popular imagination, and it’s time we disembedded it. First off, the reports of cannibalism come not from Antioch but from Ma’arrat al-Numan. Different siege, different city.

As for the stories themselves, the text would have us imagine a victorious crusader looming over the supine body of the hated Mohammedan, cutting out his heart, and biting into it with zesty contempt.

Ah … no. After Ma’arra fell, some crusaders moved on to Jerusalem, while others remained behind as famine took over the city. The starving population may have been reduced to cannibalism, and contemporary reports suggest this is a reasonable belief. As disgusting as that is, it was cannibalism driven by hunger, not as a gesture of contempt by a healthy man. Even the contemporary reports say the perpetrators were driven to madness by hunger. To suggest that it was a conscious gesture of contempt is an attempt to dehumanize the crusaders and portray them as barbarians in contrast to the Muslims, who are portrayed as noble.

Eventually, the crusaders captured the city of Jerusalem. Upon capturing the city of Jerusalem, crusaders massacred all Muslim and Jewish people. Muslims sought safety in their holiest mosque, as did the Jewish in their synagogue. All Muslims were slain and the Jewish were all burned alive inside.

The massacre of Jerusalem is a historical fact, but the statement should read “many” rather than “all Muslim and Jewish people were killed.” Too many by far were killed, but not all. Cold comfort, but history needs to strive for accuracy.

Massacres of besieged cities in medieval and ancient warfare were not unique to the crusaders. It was a crime against God and man. It was also the way hostile populations were subdued in the ancient world.

As for the “burning the Jews alive in the synagogue,” this certainly happened in the middle ages with depressing frequency, but did it happen at Jerusalem? A Muslim source claims it happened. A Jewish source claims the synagogue was burned with no one inside. I would not be surprised if it happened, but there’s evidence for and against.

At least they refrained from saying “the streets ran ankle deep with blood,” which I have read in textbooks, and is just a crass bit of hyperbole treated as fact by people who should know better. In a speech given at Georgetown, Bill Clinton even brought up the lore of crusaders wading knee-deep in blood, because nothing is so wonderfully responsible as an American president validating that lie and projecting it into the Islamic world.

There’s a lot of praise for Saladin, the only leader in the entire Crusades praised in this lesson. We are told that crusaders respected his honor.

Why the rabid murderous blood-thirsty flesh-eating “Christian” animals thus far described would respect a man of honor is not explained.

Then we come to this howler:

Children attempted to take back Jerusalem, although many drowned or were sold into slavery along the way.

Oh dear, that won’t do at all.

The Children’s Crusade is so tainted by legend that it’s almost impossible to tease out the truth. It gets blended with facts about the People’s Crusades and a couple other popular movements in Germany and France, so we wind up hearing that 30,000 children marched to the sea, which they expected to part for them, and when it didn’t, they tried to cross anyway and drowned. The rest were sold into slavery.

Yeah … that didn’t happen.

Genuine facts about the Children’s Crusade are fairly thin. In France, a young boy named Stephen claimed to have a vision ordering him to gather an army and march on Jerusalem. In Germany, a shepherd named Nicholas experienced something similar. It being a time of outbreaks of extreme popular piety, and both people claiming supernatural commands, they attracted some followers and began to march. These ragtag groups soon began to splinter and then starve. The sea didn’t part and most went home. Some may have been kidnapped and sold into slavery by sea captains. When a hardcore remnant finally made it to Rome to offer their services, Innocent III sent them home. The end.

Writing a broad history text is a matter of selection: what facts do you select, how do you shape them, and what governs the process?

The cherry-picking of grotesque facts, half-facts, and lies about the Crusades from among a wide array of facts both good and bad suggests an agenda to make Christians look uniquely horrible. I could tell a story about Islam that was nothing but 1300 years of murder, rapine, and ruin, and be fairly accurate, if not actually fair. Yet, quelle surprise!–the story of Islam is told by many textbooks in the exact opposite way from the story of the Christians: the bad is suppressed and only the good highlighted.

Why? Which facts are selected to be included, and why? Why are we told this, but not that? Why is one point emphasized and another minimized?

It’s an interesting question, no?

One final point.

I used these sections of text in my own lessons last night to help my students sort fact from BS. I urged them to be critical readers, and to not just take these stories at face value, but to seek out sources and alternate points of view. I said they should extend that skepticism me as well: Don’t take my word for it. Look for yourself. Find good sources. Test everything, hold fast to what is good.

The quoted passages matched what my students had learned in two other towns. This is just how the Crusades are taught to middle schoolers. It’s strange, I explained, that the image of the courtly knight and the crusader were the main images of chivalry, which provided generations with thrilling and heroic stories and lessons in honor, nobility, and sacrifice. And now children are carefully instructed to dispose them all and chivalry is mocked.

They stared at me blankly, and I realized something wasn’t computing.

“You know what chivalry is, right?” I asked.

No one did. Not one.

I explained how people realized that young men given power, money, armor, weapons, and training could be a dangerous, disorderly addition to European civilization. They needed a civilizing hand. They needed a code that bound up faith, honor, care for the weak, courage in battle, upright behavior, chastity (or at least continence), and idealization of women.

Men were given an ideal of manhood, and were expected to honor it. When they didn’t, we get things like massacres and murder and robbery by knights professing Christianity.

Was it ever anything more than an ideal?

I think it was. I think some men tried to live it, and did. Others tried, and sometimes failed. Others never tried. Humanity’s funny that way.

But at least it was an ideal, and a good one.

Oh, your average gender studies major will argue points about patriarchy and whatnot, but that’s just nonsense. A world in which strong, powerful men behave with honor, protect the weak, fight for the right, and treat women with genteel respect is a better world than we have now.

It may have never been the world as it was, but at least, once upon a time, it was recognized as the world as it should be.