Breaking Glass

How the Crusades Were Won

The Christian Crusades of the Middle Ages are today deployed for a wide range of political and rhetorical purposes—to make claims about the Church’s betrayal of Christ’s teaching, the evils of European imperialism, or the inextricable link between intolerant religion and ghastly violence.  Any or all of those claims might be justified.  One problem, though, distorts virtually all modern discussions of those seminal events.  Contrary to common assumptions, the Crusades were neither a miserable failure nor an exercise in futility.  Despite some defeats, their victories were extensive, enduring, and critical.

Such a claim is neither an exercise in casuistry, nor a deliberate paradox.  Yes, if we consider the European effort to retake the Holy Land and the Holy Places, then that assuredly failed.  From the launching of the First Crusade in 1095 until the mid-13th century, Latin Catholic forces ruled a network of cities and states in the Levant, extending across Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon.  Gradually, these were overwhelmed.  Antioch fell in 1268, and the Muslim conquest of Acre in 1291 effectively ended Crusader power in the region.  Despite later calls for renewed Crusades at least into the 17th century, that particular theater of warfare was closed by a decisive Muslim victory.

But that theater was only one of many.  In exactly the same years that the...

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