An email from my friend and original Middle East Guy (remember him?):
Your correspondent is basically repeating Sir Walter Scott’s 19th-century mythmaking (echoed by Steven Runciman’s popular history) about the Crusades in which venal, barbarous Christians face off against nineteenth-century Liberal gentleman Muslims.
The fact is that the reason crusading actually fit in with Christian theology (which is profoundly ambivalent about violence) was that it was an essentially penitential exercise, and it needs to be viewed in the context of turn-of-the-millennium Christendom where a whole variety of responses to an increasing consciousness of free will, sin, and something like the idea of the individual were aborning. The Franciscans, Dominicans, Carthusians, etc., are kin to crusaders and their orders in very profound ways. This is a very different world than ours, though, and silly formulations like your correspondent’s are an echo of the post-Enlightenment and post-colonial cringes which feed both problematic ideas that the crusades can (or should be) apologized for in some sense, a millennium later, and that they remain an on-going phenomenon (which fuels delusional radical Islamist ideology). There’s a whole lot to be appalled by in the crusades, but to characterize the crusaders as venal, self-interested black hats is really a phenomenon more closely tied into the West’s self-critique of colonialism from the sixteenth century onward (centuries after what we consider the Crusades proper had wrapped up—though wars against the Ottomans and others received the name and participated a little bit in the phenomenon, but differ enough to be treated separately in most respects, in my opinion).
A few quotes from an actual authority on the subject (Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, Christianity & Islam, Columbia University Press, 2008.):
The vast majority of crusaders to the East would anyway have considered the prospect of material gain to have been ridiculous. The campaigns were dangerous: recent studies of the First and Fifth Crusades estimate a death rate among the nobles and knights of around 35 percent and casualties would have been higher among the less well off. They were inconvenient both for the crusaders and their families. They were always very expensive, with few rewards for the participants, who tended to return home as soon as they were over, and the costs were always causes for concern for them and for their kindred… Crusading became more and more of a financial burden as the expenses associated with warfare increased and it is arguable that had the papacy not introduced the taxation of the church and the subsidization of crusaders from 1199 onward, the movement would have collapsed through lack of funds. As it was it remained a severe drain on family resources throughout its history. (43)
It was the belief that crusades were collective acts of penance, repayments through self-punishment of the debts owed to God for sin which distinguished them from other holy wars.… It is no exaggeration to say that a crusade was for an individual only secondarily about service in arms to God or the benefiting of the church or Christianity; it was primarily about benefiting himself, since he was engaged in an act of self-sanctification. (33)
The penitential nature of crusading helps to explain why, after the often revolting violence, the most characteristic feature of any expedition was how liturgical it was. The first crusaders began each new stage of the march barefoot and they fasted before every major engagement. (34)
The tribulations and torments of crusading were stressed over and over again.… “…Because of me you [Jesus] once drank spoiled wine on the cross; because of you, I drank putrid water swarming with worms for many days on the ship.” (40–41)
In 1099, after the liberation of Jerusalem, the survivors of the First Crusade apparently threw most of their weapons and armor away and returned to Europe carrying only the palm fronds they had collected, as evidence that they had completed their pilgrimage. (30)