Taking Up the Cross

The Crusades are an increasingly controversial topic of historical debate.  As much as slavery, the Civil War, and the conquistadores, Western Europe’s attempt to recover the Holy Land has been denounced by the anti-Christian left as a quintessential expression of Western man’s vileness.  There are many good narrative accounts of the Crusades and many mono-graphs that take up particular aspects—and no end of polemics.  Jonathan Riley-Smith’s slim volume, however, is among the rarest of books: a fair-minded attempt to judge the Crusaders by their own moral standards.

Riley-Smith’s discussions of what a Crusade was, who the Crusaders were, and by what authority a knight was justified in taking up the Cross are essential tools to help modern men and women understand a phenomenon that seems as inexplicable to us as the lemmings’ march to the sea.  The chapter “A Just Cause” is urgently needed today, for the light it sheds on both the motives of the Crusaders and the morality of the next Western expedition to the Middle East.

The medieval theory of a just war, although it is similar in many respects to later Catholic teachings, was able to embrace not only wars of defense but wars of legitimate vengeance.  While some writers (including Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Urban II) gave the impression that any war against pagans was justified, this was...

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