To the Editor:
Jonathan Riley-Smith's unabashed apologia for medieval Europe's most shameful epoch wishfully claims that "the original justification for crusading was Muslim aggression; and in terms of atrocities, the two sides' scores were about even" (December 23rd, "Religious Warriors").
The only way to support such a brash statement is to conveniently overlook the crucial distinction between the medieval Turks and Arabs -- both fungible "Muslims" (according to Riley-Smith), the actions of one attributable to the other. Yet any significant initial "Muslim aggression" was clearly not Arab but Turkish. It was the Seljuk and then Ottoman Turks who displayed a savagery Europe had not witnessed since the Hunnish invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries. This while the Arabs continued to sustain one of the period's most advanced civilizations.
Furthermore, even if Professor Riley-Smith's dubious assertion regarding the balance of atrocities was accurate, one must not lose sight of the fact that it was the Christians -- and, ironically, the Turks themselves earlier on -- who initially were the alien aggressors against the Arabs. The Arabs did indeed eventually become fanaticized, embarking on their own bloody counter-jihads, yet this was clearly a reaction to the first blood drawn by the uncouth, unruly and demonstrably less civilized Western European invaders.
Professor Riley-Smith argues that the driving motivation behind the Crusades was neither political nor economic, and further denies that it constituted Western Europe's first attempt at extra-European imperialism. Rather, he naively affirms that these military campaigns were driven by religious purposes, particularly to drive back Muslim Turks in defense of the Byzantine Empire.
Yet far more telling of the Crusades' underlying purposes were the actions of the crusaders themselves. They routinely plundered and pillaged the unfortunate Byzantine Christian populations they encountered on their way to the Holy Land. More importantly, mention of only one solitary event should shatter any "romantic" reveries about "glittering coats of arms" and chivalrous knights nobly riding with "colorful bravado" in defense of Christianity: the Fourth Crusade.
Nicknamed by medieval historians as "the Great Betrayal", the sheer magnitude of the crusaders' hypocrisy and sinister opportunism is most damningly exposed when studying this perhaps most infamous of all the Crusades. Not only were the Byzantine Christians not helped by the crusaders in their resistance against the advancing Ottoman behemoth, but the Fourth Crusade -- which resulted in the shameless sacking of Constantinople and the rape and slaughter of its inhabitants at the behest of Venetian financiers -- was the primary catalyst triggering the deterioration of the highly accomplished Greek Byzantine civilization and its eventual subjugation by the Ottoman Turks. Although the era's propaganda proclaimed that the Crusades were launched in defense of Byzantine Christendom against the invading Turks, the Judas kiss delivered by Catholic Europe in the form of the Crusades did more to cripple the Greek Byzantine Empire than any Turkish offensive ever did.
Professor Riley-Smith's argument that the crusaders escape moral culpability if judged by the mores of their contemporaries is even more absurd. The treachery of the Fourth Crusade was so despicable that even its Pope, Innocent III, was horrified unequivocally denouncing the conquest and pillaging of Constantinople in a famous Papal letter. The contemporary Byzantine historian Nicetas tells us these crusaders "respected nothing, neither the churches, nor the sacred images of Christ and his Saints. They committed atrocities upon men, respectable women, virgins, and young girls."
After desecrating Hagia Sophia, ransacking its priceless cultural treasures and smashing its sacred altars for the marble, gold and silver, the crusaders enthroned a common whore on the Patriarchal chair. Characterized by historian Ernle Bradford as "one of the most despicable acts in history", the participants of the Fourth Crusade well knew that the atrocities committed against their co-religionists in the name of Christianity were immoral, and thus many collected holy relics from ransacked Orthodox churches in the hope of achieving absolution and avoiding excommunication.
That the Crusades had far more to do with conquest and economic gain is further evinced by their end results. Not only was the Western Christian presence in the Holy Land insubstantial and fleeting, but far more significant and lasting holdings were wrested from the Orthodox Christian populations of Cyprus, the Peloponnese, and the Aegean and Ionian islands. Cyprus and Rhodes for example were ruled by Latin overlords until the 16th century, and many other conquests in Greece were held through the middle of the 15th century.
Furthermore, there is good reason Professor Riley-Smith confines his evidences in support of an idealistic vision of the Crusades to the First Crusade. The initial seed of the First Crusade may indeed have been spawned by a sincere conviction to protect Christianity from the onslaught of Islam and to retake Christianity's holiest city, Jerusalem. Professor Riley-Smith might eagerly point out that the initial crusaders did indeed battle alongside the Byzantine Greeks against the Turks to regain ancestral lands lost to the infidels. And the First Crusade's Peter the Hermit did indeed enlist an army of 30,000 while riding a mule, motivated primarily by an earnest religious idealism.
Yet arguing that the Crusades as a whole were essentially about protecting Christianity from Islam, based on the fact that the First Crusade may indeed have arisen out of genuine religious activism, is as naive as arguing that Soviet Communism's sine qua non was not ruthless totalitarianism in the service of an oligarchy but Marxist philosophy for the empowerment of the proletariat against the bourgeois. As with all such ideologically inspired movements -- whether the French Revolution, Communism, secular humanism, Iran's Islamic Revolution or the Crusades -- the dominant interests of the times soon appropriate the movement's early idealism in furtherance of their own self-serving agendas, harnessing the movement's ideological authority and blinding adherents to the clandestine maneuvering of the power brokers who use them as pawns.
Professor Riley-Smith further attempts to support his thesis by referring to assertions made by crusading knights regarding their own pious intentions. That many of the crusaders themselves may have believed or convinced themselves to believe that theirs was a religious mission, as they raped and pillaged their way across Byzantium and the Middle East, should not deceive even the novice historian. Memoirs from many a Soviet soldier, for example, are saturated with the standard fare of Marxist rhetoric, yet such rhetoric cannot conceal the reality of a decidedly anti-Marxist Soviet state. Similarly, that the crusaders single-handedly brought Greek Orthodox Christianity to the verge of extinction by delivering the Byzantine Empire to the Turkish hordes speaks far louder than any of the crusaders' self-aggrandizements.
Given his fanciful notion of the Crusades as essentially religious campaigns of self-defense, it is amusing to read Professor Riley-Smith's derision of more pragmatic perspectives with his statement "Blindness to reality can be dangerous". Putting aside a proverb that comes to mind about glass houses, Professor Riley-Smith's lack of vision lends credence to the notion that the cognitively blind often cannot recognize their own affliction.
Very truly yours,P. D. Spyropoulos, Esq.