Medieval historians like myself can’t help wincing when the period that we study finds its way into modern political discourse. That is, unfortunately, just what happened on Thursday when President Obama decided to inform the attendees of the National Prayer Breakfast about the Crusades and the Inquisition. According to the president, Christians should avoid mounting their “high horse” when it comes to “faith being twisted and distorted,” since “during the Crusades and Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
Well, yes. That’s true. But people commit terrible deeds in the name of everything. The question isn’t whether humans can be evil, but whether those acts are consistent with their religious beliefs. What I find most unsettling about the president’s remarks is not his poor understanding of medieval history, but his apparent certainty that he can discern when someone is twisting, distorting, or “hijack[ing] religion for their own murderous ends.” How is it that the president of the United States, or any other world leader for that matter, is able to separate true from perverted religion?
In any case, the Crusades and the Inquisition were in no way a distortion of medieval Christianity. Indeed, they were mainstream ideas with virtually no detractors. Both were initiated by popes, the unquestioned leaders of Western Christianity. Both were supported by generations of religious scholars and a complex infrastructure of canon law. The greatest kings of the Middle Ages, men like Richard the Lionheart of England and St. Louis IX of France, were ardent Crusaders and as a result were hailed as heroes.
Part of the problem here is that the president knows little, perhaps nothing, about the Crusades or the Inquisition. He is not alone in that, of course. Medieval historians have long lamented the gulf between fact and popular perceptions when it comes to these events. The Crusades were not brutal wars of colonial oppression or zealous attempts to spread Christianity by the sword. The First Crusade was called in 1095 by Pope Urban II in response to desperate appeals from the Christians of the Middle East, who had lately been conquered and continued to be persecuted by the Turks. And these were only the latest in more than four centuries of attacks on Christian peoples by Muslim powers. At some point Christianity as a faith and as a culture had to defend itself or else be subsumed by Islam. The work of the Crusader, who put his life at risk and underwent enormous expense, was to save Christian people and restore Christian lands. This was no perversion of Christianity. Christ had commanded his followers to be like the Good Samaritan, hurrying to bind up the wounds of their brother who had been robbed and beaten. This was the same Christ who said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” That is how Crusaders honestly saw themselves following their Christian faith.
As for the Inquisition, it was instituted in 1184 by Pope Lucius III to deal with a specific problem. Medieval European kingdoms held heresy to be a capital crime against the state. (The Church had no capital offenses.) That meant that people were arrested and tried in state courts on religious charges and, when found guilty, executed. The purpose of the Inquisition was to place Church courts using Roman laws of evidence between the accused and the state. The Inquisition not only discerned whether the accused was a heretic, but also provided a means for him or her to repent and escape the fires of the stake. The Inquisition actually saved uncounted thousands whom the state courts would have roasted. Indeed, the witch crazes that ravaged Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries occurred only in those areas in which there was no well-developed Inquisition.
Of course, many Christians, like the president, may still consider the Crusades and the Inquisition to be a distortion of their faith. Yet they should at least accept that others can honestly disagree. Protestants and Catholics follow different versions of Christianity, but we would strongly reject a president who tried to tell us which was right. By the same token, the president has even less authority to discern true from distorted Islam. ISIS is barbaric, but there is no denying that its adherents believe they are true followers of Islam. And they can point to medieval Muslim rulers who were just as bloody. The Egyptian leader Baybars, for example, captured the Christian city of Antioch in 1268 and massacred its entire population. Even Saladin, who is generally well regarded today, estimated that he had killed or executed 40,000 European Christians after the Battle of Hattin in 1187. Were these men, who were universally hailed as champions of Islam, perverters of the faith? And, if so, is it the president’s job to decide that?
In general, world leaders would do better to focus on their own age, which they tend to understand better. Judging the purity of modern terrorists’ Islamic faith will not make them less dangerous. Let’s leave the Middle Ages out of it.
— Thomas F. Madden is professor of medieval history and director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University. He is the author of The Concise History of the Crusades.