What Is Your Middle Schooler Being Taught About the Crusades?

Update 9/17/14: With the start of a new school year, I’m circulating this post again. It is particularly relevant now since we are witnessing, in real time, the violent nature of a large and fanatical Islamic army. I don’t understand how anyone can criticize the motives for the Crusades now that we see, in ISIS, something like the aggression that provoked them. Europe and the Near East has been dealing with versions of ISIS for almost 1400 years.

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Yesterday, something interesting happened: my daughter asked me to print out her 7th grade Social Studies homework, which was a lesson on the Crusades. Coincidentally, I was teaching the same subject that evening, and what I saw in my daughter’s lessons drove home the absolutely necessity of Catholics telling our own story and teaching our own history.

I’ve been teaching Church history to 8th Grade Confirmation candidates for 6 years, and I’ve developed a series of history lessons that are taught to multiple classes each year. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the controversies of our history in order to better teach them to the students. I never whitewash it. I tell my student, “We have not always been as good as we should have been, but we have never been as bad as our enemies have said.” The truth is usually in the middle of two extreme views.

In the interest of understanding what they’ve already been taught, I’ve read several middle school textbooks over the years, and found all of them deficient. Even textbooks intended for Catholic schools leave a lot to be desired. The current trend is to minimize the horrors of Islamic history (their role in the slave trade and their violent military expansionism are glossed over or left out altogether) and amplify the evils of Christians and the Church. None of this should be news to any observant Christian parent.

Yesterday’s lesson was an eye-opener, however, and I ran my red pen all over the handout that was to serve as my daughter’s source, before scribbling a final grade of “C+” at the bottom. It was a rude thing to do, since my daughter likes the teacher and she’s only working the material given her, much of which is weak in several important areas. I wrote a follow-up email explaining my problems, and she was very responsive. We’re happy with our school and our teachers, and none of this is a knock on them.

To begin with, there’s the oft-repeated lie that this was an unjust, terrible, super-wrong series of misadventure by no-good Christians to wrest control of the Holy Land from innocent, wise, and gentle Muslims in the name of greed and God.

Muslim designs on Europe? The clashes with the Byzantine Empire, the conquest of North Africa, and the occupation of Spain? The Battle of Tours? Charles “The Hammer” Martel? The differences among Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Seljuqs and others? The attempt to conquer Europe through the gateway of Constantinople? The destruction of the Holy Sepulcher (twice) by Muslims? The expulsion and murder of Christians from the Holy Land? The wholesale robbery and murder of pilgrims?

Pshaw! Don’t bother the kids with facts! The text-book writers prefer easily digestible pap with noble non-white heroes and wicked European Christian villains. Forget that Muslims were not only the aggressors, but had powerful, expansive empires when Europe was little more than a batch of quarrels with borders. If we’re talking size and power, the Crusader armies were the underdogs.

Let’s look at what bothered me, and keep in mind it follows right on the heels of a section in which Islam is presented as all lollipops and puppies.

Crusaders were particularly vicious in their attacks. Before they even reached the Holy Land, crusaders lay waste to the Jewish communities of Western Europe. Members of the Jewish community had been expelled from England and France. Many were forced to live in ghettos. Entire Jewish towns were completely wiped out by crusaders. Jewish men, women, children were all slaughtered and robbed of their possessions. Some committed suicide or killed their own children rather than being killed by crusaders, or forced to convert.

Note the absence of any qualifiers: not “some crusaders” but “crusaders were particularly vicious.” All of them. Note also the rather reckless and inaccurate use of the word “all” in reference to the slaughter, and the suggestions that the crusader armies committed wholesale genocide against the Jews of Europe.

The history of European interaction with the Jewish population is complex and often disgraceful, but too much is glossed, exaggerated, or left unsaid in this passage. The resulting image is of crusaders being commissioned for a Holy War and killing every Jew they find along the way, destroying their towns, and salting the Earth beneath them.

The lesson is blending two things: peasants who attacked Jews, and the fringe group of crusaders who committed the despicable Rhineland Massacres in 1096. Peter the Hermit’s mob of zealots also alternately killed and robbed Jews. There were crusaders on both sides of the fight: Emicho of Leiningen whipped his men into an anti-semitic mob, while Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV ordered them protected.

Christians in Mainz sheltered them in their homes. Adalbert, Bishop of Worms, sheltered Jews in the episcopal palace, only to have the mob overrun it and kill perhaps 800 Jews. Ruthard, Bishop of Mainz, barred the crusaders from the city and with the help of the Jews attempted to bribe them to go elsewhere. They took the gold and attacked anyway, leaving over a thousand dead. Stories are told of at least one mother who killed her children to keep them from their hands, and of a Jewish man killing himself in shame after submitting to a forced conversion. There’s no reason to disbelieve these stories.

As for “members of the Jewish community had been expelled from England and France” … not quite.

Orders of expulsion were going on in various places in Europe and would continue for centuries, and France around the time of the Crusaders saw waves of this as well. As for England in 1095, they hardly had much of a Jewish population at all. Jews arrived with the Normans in 1066. King Edward’s Edict of Expulsion didn’t come until 1290 (almost 200 years after that First Crusade), and even then the population of English Jews was fewer than 2,000. No Jews were expelled from England as part of the manic zeal of the First Crusade for the very sound reason that England had almost no Jews to expel at the time.

And where was the Church in all this? It’s kind of an interesting question that might be of interest to middle school students, no? After all, there’s no shortage of detail about how bad ole Urban II had called this crusade, so naturally he must have approved of wholesale slaughter of the Jews, right?

Obviously, if you know your faith, you know the opposite is the case. Under the influence of Augustine’s Witness Doctrine, popes issued edicts of protection for Jews, and bishops sheltered or attempted to shelter them. Orders against forced conversions were issued repeatedly, and repeatedly ignored by the mob. Heroic stands by great Catholic leaders might be worth a passing mention, one would think.

When St. Bernard of Clairvaux was preaching the Second Crusade, he explicitly condemned the actions against the Jews taken during the First in order to prevent it from happening again. Urban II condemned the murders, and ordered protection of Jewish life and property.

(Note: Several popes did issue antisemitic orders in defiance of the Witness Doctrine. Innocent III and Paul IV are among those who ordered Jews to wear distinct signs of their faith, be prohibited from higher office, or moved into ghettos. It was as wrong, but it was not the norm, and property and life were to be protected.)

Certainly, the Crusades saw the first sustained outbreak of antisemitism in Europe. Leaders like Godfrey of Bouillon thought a crusade to save the Holy Land would be worthless if Europe’s own Jews were left unconverted or alive.

The Church didn’t share these views, and insistently pronounced against them, but too often they were ignored.

Why? That brings us to the second reason: it was widely believed that all Jews were spectacularly wealthy, and some crusaders coveted their gold. Indeed, the “zealotry” of these alleged radical Jew haters often could be bought with a bribe, which tells us their zealotry often was a mask for their greed.

Finally, there’s a third reason. A letter (most likely a forgery) was in circulation that allegedly proved prominent European Jews had written to the the Fatimid caliph urging the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This libel helped stoke antisemitic sentiment.

Moving on:

Crusader atrocities continued when they reached the holy land. After capturing the city of Antioch, crusaders committed an unimaginable act – they committed cannibalism. They ate Muslims as a show of their utter disregard for Muslims. In other words, the crusaders viewed Muslims as no more that animals.

Whoa! That’s some pretty wild shootin’, Tex!

Widespread crusader cannibalism is one of the libels that’s become embedded in the popular imagination, and it’s time we disembedded it. First off, the reports of cannibalism come not from Antioch but from Ma’arrat al-Numan. Different siege, different city.

As for the stories themselves, the text would have us imagine a victorious crusader looming over the supine body of the hated Mohammedan, cutting out his heart, and biting into it with zesty contempt.

Ah … no. After Ma’arra fell, some crusaders moved on to Jerusalem, while others remained behind as famine took over the city. The starving population may have been reduced to cannibalism, and contemporary reports suggest this is a reasonable belief. As disgusting as that is, it was cannibalism driven by hunger, not as a gesture of contempt by a healthy man. Even the contemporary reports say the perpetrators were driven to madness by hunger. To suggest that it was a conscious gesture of contempt is an attempt to dehumanize the crusaders and portray them as barbarians in contrast to the Muslims, who are portrayed as noble.

Eventually, the crusaders captured the city of Jerusalem. Upon capturing the city of Jerusalem, crusaders massacred all Muslim and Jewish people. Muslims sought safety in their holiest mosque, as did the Jewish in their synagogue. All Muslims were slain and the Jewish were all burned alive inside.

The massacre of Jerusalem is a historical fact, but the statement should read “many” rather than “all Muslim and Jewish people were killed.” Too many by far were killed, but not all. Cold comfort, but history needs to strive for accuracy.

Massacres of besieged cities in medieval and ancient warfare were not unique to the crusaders. It was a crime against God and man. It was also the way hostile populations were subdued in the ancient world.

As for the “burning the Jews alive in the synagogue,” this certainly happened in the middle ages with depressing frequency, but did it happen at Jerusalem? A Muslim source claims it happened. A Jewish source claims the synagogue was burned with no one inside. I would not be surprised if it happened, but there’s evidence for and against.

At least they refrained from saying “the streets ran ankle deep with blood,” which I have read in textbooks, and is just a crass bit of hyperbole treated as fact by people who should know better. In a speech given at Georgetown, Bill Clinton even brought up the lore of crusaders wading knee-deep in blood, because nothing is so wonderfully responsible as an American president validating that lie and projecting it into the Islamic world.

There’s a lot of praise for Saladin, the only leader in the entire Crusades praised in this lesson. We are told that crusaders respected his honor.

Why the rabid murderous blood-thirsty flesh-eating “Christian” animals thus far described would respect a man of honor is not explained.

Then we come to this howler:

Children attempted to take back Jerusalem, although many drowned or were sold into slavery along the way.

Oh dear, that won’t do at all.

The Children’s Crusade is so tainted by legend that it’s almost impossible to tease out the truth. It gets blended with facts about the People’s Crusades and a couple other popular movements in Germany and France, so we wind up hearing that 30,000 children marched to the sea, which they expected to part for them, and when it didn’t, they tried to cross anyway and drowned. The rest were sold into slavery.

Yeah … that didn’t happen.

Genuine facts about the Children’s Crusade are fairly thin. In France, a young boy named Stephen claimed to have a vision ordering him to gather an army and march on Jerusalem. In Germany, a shepherd named Nicholas experienced something similar. It being a time of outbreaks of extreme popular piety, and both people claiming supernatural commands, they attracted some followers and began to march. These ragtag groups soon began to splinter and then starve. The sea didn’t part and most went home. Some may have been kidnapped and sold into slavery by sea captains. When a hardcore remnant finally made it to Rome to offer their services, Innocent III sent them home. The end.

Writing a broad history text is a matter of selection: what facts do you select, how do you shape them, and what governs the process?

The cherry-picking of grotesque facts, half-facts, and lies about the Crusades from among a wide array of facts both good and bad suggests an agenda to make Christians look uniquely horrible. I could tell a story about Islam that was nothing but 1300 years of murder, rapine, and ruin, and be fairly accurate, if not actually fair. Yet, quelle surprise!–the story of Islam is told by many textbooks in the exact opposite way from the story of the Christians: the bad is suppressed and only the good highlighted.

Why? Which facts are selected to be included, and why? Why are we told this, but not that? Why is one point emphasized and another minimized?

It’s an interesting question, no?

One final point.

I used these sections of text in my own lessons last night to help my students sort fact from BS. I urged them to be critical readers, and to not just take these stories at face value, but to seek out sources and alternate points of view. I said they should extend that skepticism me as well: Don’t take my word for it. Look for yourself. Find good sources. Test everything, hold fast to what is good.

The quoted passages matched what my students had learned in two other towns. This is just how the Crusades are taught to middle schoolers. It’s strange, I explained, that the image of the courtly knight and the crusader were the main images of chivalry, which provided generations with thrilling and heroic stories and lessons in honor, nobility, and sacrifice. And now children are carefully instructed to dispose them all and chivalry is mocked.

They stared at me blankly, and I realized something wasn’t computing.

“You know what chivalry is, right?” I asked.

No one did. Not one.

I explained how people realized that young men given power, money, armor, weapons, and training could be a dangerous, disorderly addition to European civilization. They needed a civilizing hand. They needed a code that bound up faith, honor, care for the weak, courage in battle, upright behavior, chastity (or at least continence), and idealization of women.

Men were given an ideal of manhood, and were expected to honor it. When they didn’t, we get things like massacres and murder and robbery by knights professing Christianity.

Was it ever anything more than an ideal?

I think it was. I think some men tried to live it, and did. Others tried, and sometimes failed. Others never tried. Humanity’s funny that way.

But at least it was an ideal, and a good one.

Oh, your average gender studies major will argue points about patriarchy and whatnot, but that’s just nonsense. A world in which strong, powerful men behave with honor, protect the weak, fight for the right, and treat women were genteel respect is a better world than we have now. It may have never been the world as it was, but at least, once upon a time, it was recognized as the world as it should be.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Maggie Goff

    A friend of mine and I bought this and really learned a lot from their talks. http://goo.gl/VCxwJh I have to say, though, I’d like to be able to sit in on
    some classes by you.

  • Andrew Brew

    I had similar experience a few years back, when my daughter was in eighth grade. The particular worksheet that got me going concerned a comparison between Richard’s capture of Acre and Saladin’s of Jerusalem (Imad al-Ding Zengi’s of Baalbek would be a more interesting comparison, I think). I won’t bore you with the details, but you can imagine. I bailed the teacher up at a parent teacher night, to my daughter’s great embarrassment. I don’t think I made much impression. To the teacher, that Christians are evil was just the right lesson to draw from the Crusades, and indeed from the Middle Ages. At the end of term they had a role-play, in which my daughter got to be burned as a heretic for saying that the earth is round.


  • Gary Beckwith

    Thomas, is there any book or online resource you could recommend to learn more about the crusades?

  • Faithr

    This was wonderful. We do need to teach our own history. It is so important. Thank you for this post.

  • D J

    Thanks for this. May the Lord bless you and yours for your striving for the truth. I fear as with Pilate these book companies that publish these texts would say ‘truth, what is truth’.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald
  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Excellent. From an over arching perspective, no one can deny the expansionist impulse of Islam and the conquest of non-Islamic people. It didn’t grow from a tribe in Medina to covering a quater of the planet by well wishes.

  • cestusdei

    Have your child do a school paper or project on the butchering of Coptic Christians in Egypt today. Use plenty of pictures of dead Christians run over by tanks or burned alive. Make the teacher squirm.

  • Adam Burch

    I would also recommend anything by Jonathan Riley-Smith.

  • Caspar

    And check out Andrew Bostom’s The Legacy of Jihad to get a sense of the norms of war on the other side of the conflict.

  • Mack

    Why are so many people treating this as a recent discovery? This is pretty much the pop-culture ‘tude toward the Faith and the Crusades I was taught in the 1950s. Happily, I was an eager reader and, by the grace of my parents, a frequent habitue’ of the cinema, and took the older, more romantic, more generous, and surprisingly more accurate view of previous generations.

  • Julia B

    I have Riley-Smith’s book on the Crusades – the Oxford paperback version with lots of color photos. Easy reading and has the latest scholarship on Crusading. It went on for centuries, moving into European military projects I hadn’t thought of as being Crusades.
    Amongst the most startling facts to me was that it wasn’t expendable third sons who went off to fight, it was the big shots who took great chances and spent tons of money and left their wives to run their estates while gone. And they didn’t go to get rich from booty – there was very little booty and lots of loss of life and limb for no gain.

  • Julia B

    There is also a book with citations from Islamic writings of the time. Amazing to find out that the Muslims considered the Crusades at the time as brush fires and not very important. The center of the Islamic world at the time was further East in Baghdad, not the Levant. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. http://www.amazon.com/Crusades-Through-Arab-Eyes/dp/0805208984/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1389814589&sr=1-3&keywords=The+Islamic+view+of+the+Crusades

  • Julia B
  • mrteachersir

    I think “chivalry” most certain DID exist in reality AND in theory. The “Lays of Marie de France” indicate that the ideal was most certainly upheld by some, particularly the proper treatment of women. It is widely assumed that Mallory’s “Le Morte D’Artur” is a yearning for a bygone era when chivalry dominated.

    It is similar to the samurai code of “bushido”, which likewise sought to restrain the violent tendencies of skilled, armed, and trained men. In feudal Japan, the samurai not only fought wars, but also wrote poetry and engaged in philosophy. It would make sense that their European counterparts, the knights, would likewise be at least somewhat restrained…

  • OttFatherofTwo

    excellent. This is one of the reasons thaI send my children to a school that uses: http://www.catholictextbookproject.com/

  • Nancy de Flon

    101 Q&A on the Crusades and the Inquisition by John Vidmar, OP is what you want. Fr. Vidmar is a proper historian who tells the truth in this excellent book. http://www.amazon.com/101-Questions-Answers-Crusades-Inquisition/dp/0809148048/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1389834601&sr=1-1&keywords=vidmar+crusades

  • Nancy Gerdes

    Thanks for the great article! Would you be willing to share your history lessons?

  • Marie

    Please publish a history on the crusades for children, say one at elementary school level and one at middle school level (in your copious spare time of course). High school level would be grand too, but the greatest need is for the younger kids. High schoolers could read the books listed below in the earlier comments. Catholic homeschoolers have been begging for years for something reliable.

  • irena mangone

    I like this also the whole above lesson on the crusades nice for the truth to be told

  • jenny

    thank you for this post….