By James A. Haught
This is the second segment of a nine-part series on religious horrors, cruelties, atrocities and tragedies of all types.
Many people think the Crusades were romantic quests by shining knights wearing crimson crosses – but they actually were a nightmare of slaughter, rape, looting and magic tales.
After Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade in 1095 to wrest the Holy Land from infidels – declaring “Deus vult” (God wills it) – volunteer armies arose like mobs around Europe. Some in the Rhine Valley followed a goose they thought had been enchanted by God to guide them.
Other groups decided they should first kill “the infidels among us,” so they stormed Jewish ghettos and slaughtered inhabitants – giving some a chance to save themselves by converting to Christianity at swordpoint.
In The New York Times, Susan Jacoby described how mobs slaughtered defenseless Jewish families – and some Jewish mothers killed their own children, rather than let them be ripped away by bloodthirsty Christians.
As the peasant armies traveled through the Balkans, they pillaged farms and towns for food, provoking battles with local peoples. In one clash, an army led by Peter the Hermit killed 4,000 Christian residents of Zemun, Yugoslavia, then burned nearby Christian Belgrade.
As crusaders reached the eastern end of the Mediterranean, they decapitated hundreds of Muslims and carried the heads as trophies. During the siege of Antioch, 200 Muslim heads were catapulted over the walls into the city. Muslim defenders inside decapitated the city’s Christians and catapulted their heads outward.
When Jerusalem fell, almost every resident was slaughtered. Chronicler Raymond of Aguilers wrote proudly: “The horses waded in blood up to their knees, nay, up to the bridle. It was a just and wonderful judgment of God.”
In a 2001 speech at Georgetown University, President Bill Clinton commented: “When the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem [in 1099], they… proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple Mount.”
However, Muslims regrouped and eventually drove out Crusaders. So a Second Crusade was launched, then a Third, and several more. During the Third Crusade, in 1191, Richard the Lion-Hearted ordered 3,000 captives at Acre to be cut open to retrieve swallowed gems. St. Bernard of Clairvaux declared: “The Christian glories in the death of a pagan, because thereby Christ Himself is glorified.”
In the Fourth Crusade, cross-wearing soldiers became sidetracked and sacked Christian Constantinople. Other crusades fizzled.
The seventh and final crusade was the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 when a papal fleet defeated a Muslim fleet. A crusader named Miguel de Cervantes suffered a maimed arm. He later wrote Don Quixote.
At the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama triggered fundamentalist outrage by saying Crusaders “committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
Incidentally, the Seventh Crusade was ordered by Pope Pius V, who espoused slaughter. As Grand Inquisitor, he sent troops to kill 2,000 deviant Waldensians, followers of preacher Peter Waldo, in southern Italy. After becoming pope, he sent troops to fight Huguenot Protestants in France, telling commanders to kill all prisoners. And he revived the Inquisition to torture and burn Christian “heretics.” After his death, Pius V was canonized a saint.
(Next: The Inquisition and Witch Hunts)