Legend vs. reality

 Both the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition deserve criticism.  Unfortunately, much of the criticism winds up being constructed of legends and incomplete information.  It would be better if they were criticized on the basis of the cold hard facts, rather than being used as the axes of those with the need to grind.

Thoughts about this came to me as I was reading a book recommended to me by an acquaintance.  I never expect to agree with everything in a book, and I don’t even expect the books I read to be free of error.  After all, despite the best efforts of both me and my editors, my recently published book has its fair share of flaws. So, I was not terribly upset when I found errors of fact in this book.  But it did interrupt my appreciation of it.

In a section discussing the mistreatment of women over the course of world history, the book mentioned in passing that “between three and five million” women were killed by the “Holy Inquisition.”  Most people would read over that figure and not think twice about it.  Unfortunately I was a history major in college and so I knew better.  For one thing, only about 150,000 people were even tried by the Spanish Inquisition, which lasted from around 1478 to 1834.  So the numbers executed from all those tried would obviously have to be much fewer than the three to five million posited in the book.  And actually, according to the records that were kept, the number executed—depending on the historian you read—were somewhere between 800 and 1000.  Some have estimated that the figure could be as high as 5000, but the lower figures seem to have more evidence for them. It is certainly tragic and horrible that even 800 people should have been executed merely for what they believe.  So we don’t need to inflate the figures to be justly outraged. It should also be pointed out that the Inquisition never existed in Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, or England. It was confined to southern France, Italy, Spain, and a few parts of the Holy Roman Empire.  Historically, life has been harshly difficult for women, but we don’t need to repeat myths to make that obvious point.

The Crusades of the Middle Ages are likewise commonly criticized—and justly so.  But they are also often cited as motivation for modern Islamic resentment, with some arguing that they demonstrate long-standing Western aggression against the Moslem world.  However, if the Crusades are put in historical context, I don’t believe that they can legitimately be used that way.  For all their problems (and there are many), the Crusades were, in fact, a reaction to imperialistic Muslim aggression, not a first strike against innocents. 

The 2001  movie Pearl Harbor was seriously flawed in its opening scenes when it attempted, in some way, to justify the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by pointing out that the United States had imposed a severe economic embargo on Japan, making it hard for the Japanese to get needed oil and other industrial materials.  The movie failed to explain that the reason there was such an embargo was because the Japanese had invaded China and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.

            Likewise, the context is important for understanding the Crusades.  Muslim armies had stormed out of what is today Saudi Arabia in the seventh century, conquering vast territories throughout the Middle East, across North Africa, and up into Europe, including what is today Spain. In the process, they forced the conversions, deaths, and persecution of thousands and thousands of Christians, taking lands that had been Christian dominated for centuries. 

The immediate cause of the First Crusade was the defeat of a Byzantine army by the Muslims in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071.  The Emperor of the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople (today Istanbul), appealed to the Pope for mercenaries to help him resist further Muslim advances into the territory of his Empire.  And so the First Crusade began around 1095. The original goal of this Crusade was primarily to recapture Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land from the Muslims, who had taken them from the Christians in the seventh century. 

            The Crusades were initially successful in recapturing the Holy Land.  But they went badly off track.  The Crusaders wound up slaughtering not just enemy combatants, but also civilians.  They broke treaties, they attacked Jews and Christians and they plundered the cities of the East.  Criticizing the Crusades as bad policy, pointing out these excesses and their brutality, is reasonable and appropriate. And the early success of the Crusades was temporary. The Muslim armies eventually reconquered Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land.

The Byzantine Empire eventually fell for good to Muslim armies in 1453, with the conquest of Constantinople.  Churches were turned into mosques, Christians were slaughtered and persecuted.  And today, what had been a Christian kingdom is now entirely Muslim.