There are many ways to describe Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks at the University of Regensburg last September concerning the “evil and inhuman” nature of Muhammad’s teachings. Impolitic is one way, maladroit another. They can also be described as deeply ignorant concerning Islam’s role in preserving, transmitting and enhancing classical culture at a time when most Europeans were still snuggling up to their oxen for warmth. But the most striking thing about the comments was the way they reflected a view that was alarmingly one-sided and unreflective. The religious zeal of the proto-Muslim forces that erupted out of Arabia in the seventh century has been much exaggerated on both sides of the Muslim-Christian divide. Far from forcing subjects to adopt their faith (which at that point was no more than embryonic), they discouraged conversion if only because it would have undermined the poll tax on Jews and Christians on which their revenue depended. But the religious zeal of Catholic armies that have periodically erupted out of Western Europe has not been exaggerated. Beginning with Charlemagne, who is said to have beheaded 4,500 Saxons for the crime of lapsing into paganism, they repeatedly engaged in conversion by the sword along with mass murder of all those who refused. If forced conversion is “contrary to God’s nature,” as the Pope asserted at Regensburg, then no institution has behaved in a more ungodly fashion than his own church.
On the other hand, considering that Exodus 15:3 plainly states that “Yahweh is a warrior” and that slaughtering unbelievers is one of the things that warrior-god worshipers do, perhaps no institution has behaved in a more godly fashion either. Were it not for the fact that he has been working on it since at least 1998, Christopher Tyerman’s massive new history of the Crusades could be read as a rejoinder to the Benedictine doctrine that forced conversion is something the other side practices, never our own. Rather than beginning with Charlemagne, God’s War opens a couple of centuries later, when, following an extended period of punishment at the hands of Viking, Magyar and Saracen raiders, the Catholic West turned the tables on its tormenters and began striking back with startling vigor. In 1015-16, Pisan and Genoese raiders were attacking Arab pirate bases in Sardinia. A few decades after that, Christian rulers in the north of Spain were hitting back at Muslim rulers to the south. By 1060 Norman adventurers were campaigning to take Sicily from the Arabs, who had taken it two centuries earlier from the Byzantines. Then, in 1095, came the climax, an immense human tide that poured out of France, Flanders and other provinces and began making its way east with the purpose of liberating, so to speak, the Holy Land from the Seljuk Turks.
This was the opening salvo in the Crusades, a century and a quarter of invasions and assaults not only against Palestine but Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and even Constantinople, the Byzantine capital that was the Latin West’s supposed ally. Tyerman does not limit his account to those expeditions, however, but also throws in the Albigensian crusade of 1209-29 against a heretical group of “dualists” in the South of France known as the Cathars; the campaigns by Teutonic Knights against pagan tribes in the eastern Baltic; and the Christian reconquest of Spain, which was largely complete with the fall of Seville in 1248 even though a Muslim outpost in Granada managed to hold on until 1492.
All were of a piece, which is to say that all flowed from a Western resurgence that had its first stirrings in the tenth century and had reached high gear by the late eleventh. Two things about this resurgence stand out. One is its multidimensionality. Weak, depopulated and culturally impoverished, Western Europe was on everyone’s list as the most unlikely candidate for resurgence. Yet it was soon racing ahead not just militarily but religiously, politically, economically and even intellectually. The Parisian student of dialectics was one aspect of the Western European takeoff, the powerful growth of shipping and trade was another, while the crusading knight and the fiery cleric proclaiming, “Kill them. The Lord knows who are his own”–as the Abbot Arnaud Aimery reportedly did in urging on the indiscriminate slaughter of the people of Béziers, a Cathari stronghold–were a third. All were products of an increasingly aggressive and energetic society bent on strengthening politico-religious authority at home and extending its reach abroad.