Knight of the Crusades. donald_gruener/E+/Getty
One of the most famous examples of religious violence in the Middle Ages is of course the Crusades – attempts by European Christians to impose their vision of religion upon Jews, Orthodox Christians, heretics, Muslims, and just about anyone else who happened to get in the way. Traditionally the term “Crusades” are limited to describing massive military expeditions by Christians to the Middle East, but it is more accurate to acknowledge that there also existed “crusades” internal to Europe and directed at local minority groups.
Amazingly, the Crusades have often been remembered in a romantic fashion, but perhaps nothing has deserved it less. Hardly a noble quest in foreign lands, the Crusades represented the worst in religion generally and in Christianity specifically. The broad historical outlines of the Crusades are available in most history books, so I will instead present some examples of how greed, gullibility and violence played such important roles.
RELIGION AND THE CRUSADING SPIRIT
Not all crusades were led by kings greedy for conquest, although they certainly didn’t hesitate when they had a chance. An important fact often overlooked is that the crusading spirit which gripped Europe throughout the High Middle Ages had particularly religious roots. Two systems which emerged in the church deserve special mention has having contributed greatly: penance and indulgences. Penance was a type of worldly punishment, and a common form was a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands.
Pilgrims resented the fact that sites holy to Christianity were not controlled by Christians, and they were easily whipped into a state of agitation and hatred towards Muslims. Later on, crusading itself was regarded as a holy pilgrimage – thus, people paid penance for their sins by going off and slaughtering adherents of another religion.
Early on, crusades were more likely to be unorganized mass movements of “the people” than organized movements of traditional armies. More than that, the leaders seemed be chosen based on just how incredible their claims were. Tens of thousands of peasants followed Peter the Hermit who displayed a letter he claimed was written by and delivered to him personally by Jesus. This letter was supposed to be his credentials as a Christian leader, and perhaps he was indeed qualified – in more ways than one.
Not to be outdone, throngs of crusaders in the Rhine valley followed a goose believed to be enchanted by God to be their guide. I’m not sure that they got very far, although they did manage to join other armies following Emich of Leisingen who asserted that a cross miraculously appeared on his chest, certifying him for leadership. Showing a level of rationality consistent with their choice of leaders, Emich’s followers decided that before they traveled across Europe to kill God’s enemies, it would be a good idea to eliminate the infidels in their midst. Thus suitably motivated, they proceeded to massacre the Jews in German cities like Mainz and Worms.
Thousands of defenseless men, women and children were chopped, burned or otherwise slaughtered.
This sort of action was not an isolated event – indeed, it was repeated throughout Europe by all sorts of crusading hordes. The lucky Jews were given a last-minute chance to convert to Christianity in accord with Augustine’s doctrines. Even other Christians were not safe from the Christian crusaders. As they roamed the countryside, they spared no effort in pillaging towns and farms for food. When Peter the Hermit’s army entered Yugoslavia, 4,000 Christian residents of the city of Zemun were massacred before the army moved on to burn Belgrade.
Eventually the mass killings by amateur crusaders were taken over by professional soldiers – not so that fewer innocents would be killed, but so that they would be killed in a more orderly fashion.
This time, ordained bishops followed along to bless the atrocities and make sure that they had official church approval. Leaders like Peter the Hermit and the Rhine Goose were rejected by the church not for their actions, but for their reluctance to follow official church procedures.
Taking the heads of slain enemies and impaling them upon pikes appears to have been a favorite pastime among crusaders, for example, chronicles record a story of a crusader-bishop who referred to the impaled heads of slain Muslims as a joyful spectacle for the people of God. When Muslim cities were captured by Christian crusaders, it was standard operating procedure for all inhabitants – no matter what their age – to be summarily killed. It is not an exaggeration to say that the streets ran red with blood as Christians reveled in church-sanctioned horrors. Jews who took refuge in their synagogues would be burned alive, not unlike the treatment they received in Europe.
In his reports about the conquest of Jerusalem, Chronicler Raymond of Aguilers wrote that “It was a just and marvelous judgment of God, that this place [the temple of Solomon] should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers.” St. Bernard announced before the Second Crusade that “The Christian glories in the death of a pagan, because thereby Christ himself is glorified.”
Sometimes, atrocities were excused as actually being merciful. When a crusader army broke out of Antioch and sent the besieging army into flight, the Christians found that the abandoned Muslim camp was filled with the wives of the enemy soldiers. Chronicler Fulcher of Chartres happily recorded for posterity that “…the Franks did nothing evil to them [the women] except pierce their bellies with their lances.”
Although members of other religions obviously suffered at the hands of good Christians throughout the Middle Ages, it should not be forgotten that other Christians suffered just as much. Augustine’s exhortation to compel entry into the church was adopted with great zeal when church leaders dealt with Christians who dared to follow a different sort of religious path.
This had not always been the case – during the first millennium, death was a rare penalty. But in the 1200s, shortly after the beginning of the crusades against the Muslims, wholly European crusades against Christian dissidents were enacted.
The first victims were the Albigenses, sometimes called the Cathari, who were centered primarily in southern France. These poor freethinkers doubted the biblical story of Creation, thought that Jesus was an angel instead of God, rejected transubstantiation, and demanded strict celibacy. History has taught that celibate religious groups generally tend to die out sooner or later, but contemporary church leaders weren’t anxious to wait. The Cathari also took the dangerous step of translating the bible into the common language of the people, which only served to further enrage religious leaders.
In 1208, Pope Innocent III raised an army of over 20,000 knights and peasants eager to kill and pillage their way through France. When the city of Beziers fell to the besieging armies of Christendom, soldiers asked papal legate Arnald Amalric how to tell the faithful apart from the infidels. He uttered his famous words: “Kill them all. God will know His own.” Such depths of contempt and hatred are truly frightening, but they are made possible by a religious doctrine of eternal punishment for unbelievers and eternal reward for believers.
Followers of Peter Waldo of Lyon, called Waldensians, also suffered the wrath of official Christendom. They promoted the role of lay street preachers despite official policy that only ordained ministers be allowed to preach. They rejecting things like oaths, war, relics, veneration of saints, indulgences, purgatory, and a great deal more which was promoted by Catholic leaders. The church needed to control the sort of information which the people heard, lest they be corrupted by the temptation to think for themselves. They were declared heretics at the Council of Verona in 1184 and then hounded and killed over the course of the following 500 years. In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII called for an armed crusade against populations of Waldensians in France.
Dozens of other heretical groups suffered the same fate – condemnation, excommunication, repression and eventually death. Christians did not shy away from killing their own religious brethren when even minor theological differences arose. For them, perhaps no differences were truly minor – all doctrines were a part of the True Path to heaven, and deviation on any point challenged the authority of the church and the community. It was a rare person who dared to stand up and make independent decisions about religious belief, made all the more rare by the fact that they were massacred as fast as possible.
- Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History.
- James A. Haught, Holy Horrors.
- J.N. Hillgarth, Christianity and Paganism, 350-750.
- Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy.
- Edward Peters, Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe.
- R. Dean Peterson, A Concise History of Christianity.