Contemporary myths of the Crusades: A few selections and connections to the Albigensian Crusade

In our contemporary world, many common misconceptions regarding the Crusades are perpetually thrown around as a result of distorted histories. Political correctness has led many in Western Civilization to deplore their past as they see their successes in the past as little more than a series of exploitative, bigoted, and warmongering actions. This politically correct lens has skewed the reality of many events but few have been more corrupted than the Crusades (in popular knowledge, at least).

Ironically, it is frequently the Albigensian Crusade to which many of those who skew the history of the Crusades point to in their effort to present history in this context. That story is presented just like many others where an oppressive majority persecutes and exploits a subjugated minority. To which the story of the Albigensian Crusade certainly can fit the description. But the real story behind the Crusading era is far more complex than those with political agendas would like to admit.

This short piece intends to present a series of common misconceptions surrounding the Crusades as a whole and include specific insight as to how the Albigensian Crusade relates to the myths. The Albigensian Crusade is impossible to defend as a noble effort; it is a blatant political struggle for power. This makes it fit perfectly with the revising of history to align with the post-modernist disdain towards all that is Western. And thanks to that seemingly easy connection, they are often referenced as the key data point to which revisionists point in defending their assertions.

Among the most notorious for causing these misconceptions are the popular histories written by Steven Runciman, virtually any popular culture story involving the Crusades – Monty Python & the Holy Grail and Kingdom of Heaven jump to mind – and also the various victim-group-focused historians who seek to rewrite history from specific viewpoints rather than considering the story in its full context.

One popular misconception is the suggestion that there was a real lack of sincerity of the Crusaders. Very frequently, when such claims are made they are done so in reference to the Albigensian Crusade and its successor conflict – the Inquisition. However, to suggest that those who went on Crusade throughout the few centuries of their utilization for power/greedy motives, is to dismiss the serious threat that was posed to their lives and their property/family left behind. While it is true that some Crusaders ultimately ended up profiting, and the behaviors of several of those Crusaders clearly motivated by greed, it is quite unlikely that the majority was only driven by such motives. The simple truth is that the medieval world was one in which religion was paramount to virtually all members of medieval society and was taken seriously, unlike in our post-modern society. Motives like greed may have played its part for some, perhaps even many, but religion was most likely a motive for all.

Another of the most popular misconceptions surrounding the Crusades is that they are nothing more than an early example of European imperialism. This is popularly believed due to the fact that the Crusaders unquestionably invaded lands held by the Muslims in 1096 and did, indeed, conquer those territories holding onto them as their own for nearly a century. This viewpoint misses a few necessities for imperialism – or colonialism – to take place. First, it ignores the fact that by virtually all accounts, Europe around 1000 A.D. was weaker – militarily, culturally, and economically – than the Muslim world. Second, in the context of how Crusading evolved, it became a tool used by the Papacy to extend Catholic control in areas where their authority was being challenged. This is how it was utilized in the Albigensian Crusade and clearly using Crusade within Christendom can’t qualify as colonialism or as imperialism.

Finally, a few interesting facts illustrate maybe the most important long-term misconception: the notion that the Crusades somehow resulted in the Muslim world despising Western civilization in our contemporary world. First, the Crusades were – and remain – a medieval phenomenon. When people utter of Crusades today, they do not hold the same nature. The medieval world is separated from the contemporary world by nearly a millennium and by dynamic world changes – politically, economically, and socially. Second, the modern-day utilization of Saladin as a rallying cry is ironic in itself as according to scholars, the Muslim world had to be re-introduced to him as an important person in the late 19th century. The idea that somehow Muslim scholars forgot about this great warrior is silly – the reality is that they had a much different view of the Crusades. To the Muslims, the Crusades were but a footnote in the great rise of Islam to world superpower. Although the Crusaders were successful in their first attempt to retake the Holy Land, the Latin East fell back into Muslim hands fully under the leadership of Baybars. The Muslims then expanded further and even conquered Constantinople several centuries thereafter. The Crusades were not something that Muslims looked back on in sorrow because they symbolized their position as victims of Western oppressors; rather it is much more likely that they saw them as a failed effort by a backwards people to take lands they had taken earlier. In other words, the Crusades were a failed invasion by a foe that they didn’t feel threatened by again significantly until the industrial and imperial age slightly over a half-millennium later.

The Crusades were a complex and dynamic institution of the medieval world. They have been reinterpreted in a multitude of ways throughout history. Those interpretations made frequently in a way that seeks to understand them not through the viewpoint of medieval contemporaries, but through the historians own worldview. This is a grave crime against telling the truth of actual history and poses a major challenge to writing histories in this subject area. The Albigensian Crusade has ironically been utilized as a tool by those revisionists to skew the story of the Crusades and continue to serve as a twist to the story of the Crusades.

Further reading

  • Thomas Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades. Lanham 2005 (see Chapter 10: ‘Legacy of the Crusades and Conclusion’).
  • Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A History. New Haven 2005; 2nd edition.
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