As part of my continuing work on the Crusades documentary, here is another printed section from the documentary dealing with another common crusader myth The first of this series can be found here. This time, we look at the idea that the crusades were the first European colonies.
Much nonsense has been written about the crusader states in the modern era, including the idea that these states were the west’s first colonial venture. For example, this idea can be found in the writings of English apostate nun and religious syncretist Karen Armstrong, who writes that these states “were our first colonies”. This view is also common amongst historians influenced by Marxism and modern economic theories, in which the crusaders took advantage of the locals, and those who stayed in the Holy Land were “landless younger sons” motivated by greed and land-lust. There are several reasons why such ideas have no basis in reality.
The modern conventional definition of colonialism is when one society forces another into an unfair economic situation which causes the stronger society to profit. This is done by direct political and military control of the weaker territory. This requires a class of rulers from the host country enforcing the arrangement. If this is the idea that most have of colonialism, a 19th and early 20th century phenomenon viewed through a Marxist lens, then the crusader states were nothing of the sort. Only in the loosest definition of the word colony is this even possible, in which the word seems synonymous with the word settlement. If this is the case, then the western Christians merely took a colony from the Muslim Turks, who were also a ruling minority. If this is colonialism, then every conquest is colonialism, and the crusaders as rulers were remarkably benevolent by medieval standards.
In addition, the crusader states were never beholden to European powers, and instead functioned as completely autonomous and independent states. As far as economic exploitation, it could instead be argued that the transfer of wealth went from Europe to the Middle East, meaning Europe was the colony! Regardless, accusing the crusaders of launching the first colonial venture is at best ignorant, and is perhaps intentionally malicious.
Who Stayed and Why? How Did they Govern?
Since the majority of crusaders left the Holy Land after fulfilling their crusading vow, and since the colonial and economic advantage arguments fail, the question then becomes, who stayed and why? In a manner similar to the recruitment and execution of the crusade, those who stayed were attached to great lords and their large extended household. When Godfrey of Bouillon was named the “Defender of the Holy Sepulcher,” the fighting men, aristocrats, and others attached to him also stayed, just like they joined him on crusade. Instead of landless lesser sons, the significant decisions to stay were almost always the heads of households, who due to their wealth had no economic reason to stay. These decisions are better explained by the religious idealism of the crusade leaders, and the strong bonds of love and honor that existed between lords and vassals, or patrons and clients.
The western Christians who remained in the Levant never amounted to much more than 10 percent of the population. The rest was made up the majority Muslims of both the Sunni and Shiite traditions, with sizable minorities of Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Catholics, and Jews. Even though the crusader states were under constant threat from the Muslim world around them, with raids and robberies common, the local Muslim population seems to have been quite content under Christian rule. There was no attempt at forcible conversion, and Muslims were still allowed to worship, which contradicts those who think the crusades were about finding converts or a new religious market. Taxes were lower in the crusader states than in the Muslim areas next door, and most Muslims peasants were allowed to keep their land and their trades. By also having a reputation for maintaining a just legal system, many Muslims found such an arrangement enormously tempting. As a Muslim pilgrim from Spain to Mecca writes, “(the Muslims) live in great comfort under the Franks; may Allah preserve us from such a temptation…(Muslims) are masters of their dwellings, and govern themselves as they wish. This is the case in all the territory occupied by the Franks.”