This past April, Pope Francis called upon the international community to stop the murder and displacement of Iraqi Christians by ISIS. My mind immediately went to the eleventh century and Pope Urban II's call for European Christians to intervene in the Seljuk Turks' slaughter of Christians in the Holy Land.
Naturally, I wanted to read up on the subject. Hillaire Belloc's The Crusades had been on my shelf for over a decade, but something in the style kept me from going past the first few pages. I'm happy to say that I had the opposite experience with Steve Weidenkopf's The Glory of the Crusades (Catholic Answers Press, 2014). I sailed through it in the course of a weekend.
You are probably wondering about the use of the word "Glory" in the title. Weidenkopf certainly doesn't glorify violence. He using the word in its original Hebrew sense, meaning "heavy in weight." In the preface he explains, "To recognize the glory of the Crusades means not to whitewash what was ignoble about them, but to call attention to the import in the life of the Church" (p.14).
Weidenkopf is a fantastic story teller, and he uses that talent to rather effortlessly lead the reader, in just over 240 pages, through six centuries of crusading history. In this sweeping narrative we are introduced to characters such as Godfrey de Bouillon and Richard the Lionhearted, as well as saints like Francis of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. King Louis IX of France.
What I value most about this book is the way it unmasks the many myths about the Crusades - that they were wars of aggression, motivated by greed, the first movement in European colonialism. Weidenkopf shows how these false characterizations arose in the Reformation and Enlightenment. He provides a good review of the early Church's view of military service and the requirements of a "just war," contrasting these with Islamic jihad.
When you finish this book, however, I doubt that you will have a triumphant feeling regarding the Crusades. You will understand the noble motivation that set them in motion - defense of pilgrims to, and Christians living in, the Holy Land - but you will see how frequently participants' fallen natures led them astray. There are many bright spots to be sure: acts of courage and sanctity - as well as divine providence, as at the Battle of Lepanto. More often than not, however, you will be reading accounts of failure, both moral and military.
Weidenkopf's The Glory of the Crusades is a marvelous history - concise and eminently readable. Given the state of the world today, and the conversations going on around us, we need a reliable guide to understanding the religious/military conflicts of the past.