God's War

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Medieval societies were violent, both in Christian and Muslim lands. It was impossible for any state that did not defend itself to survive, and with aggressive neighbors on all sides, Christians, Muslims and pagans alike honored and rewarded their warriors. Though rulers agreed that peace and justice were desirable goals, they understood that violence was sometimes necessary against evildoers and that while wars of expansion might be of questionable morality, in the contemporary political world those who remained passive went under.

According to Christopher Tyerman in his book God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, nothing illustrates this better than the fate of the Carolingian state. Vikings, Magyars, and Muslims rampaged through Germany, France, Britain, and parts of Italy. Only a drastic decentralization of authority and the creation of a new military class (knights) allowed a reorganization of those regions as feudal states. However, just when the Holy Roman emperor seemed on the verge of pulling the many independent regions into a more unified state, one that could extend Roman Christianity northward and eastward, a quarrel with the popes crippled his authority. This contest, known today as the Investiture Controversy, was over control of the church lands in Germany and Italy, and a belief that, once the reformed papacy made itself supreme over secular rulers, it could make Christian principles dominant throughout society.

With popes calling upon nobles, bishops, abbots, and knights to take up arms in defense of the Church, the spiritual climate was made ready for the Crusades. If defending the pope was good, much better was rescuing the Orthodox Church and recovering the holy places in Jerusalem (even though there had been no significant new obstacles to pilgrims worshiping there).

Earlier, such ambitions would have been impossible. By the end of the eleventh century, however, the West was becoming more powerful. This was partly because of demographic and cultural changes but was also because the Byzantine and Arab states had been hard hit by the arrival of the Turks in the Middle East. The West’s sense of power was increased by the success of Western arms in contests with Byzantines and Muslims in Italy and Sicilyit seemed as though a comparatively small number of knights could defeat any number of enemies, and many knights already had experience in Byzantine service. Knights believed in loyalty, money, and respect for their leaders; Pope Urban II’s call for a crusade provided a fourth motivation for holy wara noble cause.

The concept of a just war was developed in the late Roman Empire. It was, in fact, the only way that any Christian ruler could justify not giving up his lands and retiring into a monastery. The eleventh century concept of holy war combined the Peace of God, the reform of the papacy, the Investiture Controversy, the pilgrimage, and, ultimately, Urban II’s creative response to the Byzantine cry for help. In contrast, holy war was nothing new to Muslims. The jihad (often referred to as the “little jihad” in contrast to the “greater jihad,” a struggle for personal purity) was widely considered the sixth pillar of Islam. However, with most Arab conflicts being among themselves, there was little aggression against Christian neighbors until the arrival of the Turks in the late eleventh century. The Turkish onslaught brought with it as much death and destruction as the Crusades, if not more. This lent credence to atrocity stories spread by the Byzantines and Western visitors.

There was a rough balance of religions in the Holy Land, perhaps even a slight Christian majority. Pragmatically, Muslim rulers had long allowed Christians and Jews to worship as they pleased, as long as they accepted their subordinate status and paid taxes, but it was not the equality dreamed of by modern apologists. First the Turks, then the crusaders would upset this practical arrangement.

Urban II’s dramatic appeal is less accurately understood than is commonly believed, being more legend than history. Urban’s intent, however, seems cleara claim to political leadership over all Europe. There was to be a general peace, religious reform, and an increase in papal authority. His plan was not, as is often asserted, an armed pilgrimage or the rescue of Constantinople.

Peter the...

(The entire section is 1790 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

The Atlantic Monthly 298, no. 4 (November, 2006): 124.

The Christian Century 123, no. 21 (October 17, 2006): 23-24.

The Daily Telegraph, September 10, 2006, p. 44.

Library Journal 131, no. 15 (September 15, 2006): 74.

The Nation 283, no. 20 (December 11, 2006): 44-49.

The New York Review of Books 53, no. 16 (October 19, 2006): 41-45.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 29 (July 24, 2006): 46.

The Spectator 301 (August 26, 2006): 35-36.

Sunday Times, August 27, 2006, p. 45.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 8, 2006, pp. 4-5.