The Crusades: The World’s Debate

Human affairs are decided through conflict of ideas, which often resolve themselves by conflict under arms.—Hilaire Belloc

Reading The Crusades: The World’s Debate once again confirms that it is among Belloc’s best historical studies. The text has the feel of a very logically structured lecture. We can imagine Belloc counting off the key points on his fingers: “firstly… secondly… thirdly…” He tells us what led to the Crusades. It was not simply the conflict between Islam and Christianity. For generations a sort of modus vivendi existed between the Arab Muslims and the pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. Specifically it was the onslaught of the Seljuk Turks, a vigorous murdering horde, that overwhelmed Byzantium’s eastern borders and cut the Holy Land off from the West. Centuries later they threatened the very heart of Europe. Yet the religious dimension remains fundamental. The Turk might have been subdued or even assimilated, as were other barbarians, had he not been fanatically inspired by the creed of Muhammad. It is the failure to understand this that has led to the West’s inability to intelligently respond to Islamic terrorism in the modern age. Seventy years ago Belloc wrote: “Islam survives. Its religion is intact; therefore its material strength may return.”

Of interest to the student is the command and organization of Medieval armies, which were not rigidly disciplined formations like those of ancient Rome or modern Europe. The long dominant infantry arm was supplanted by cavalry. The mounted knights were also a highly independent force. The spontaneity of the Medieval European warrior was an ingredient of his immediate success, and a factor in his long-term failure. That is why, even though the Ninth Crusade was launched as late as 1271, the struggle had effectively been lost from the outset by the inability of the Christians to capture Damascus. Belloc’s strong points are cultural, religious and military history (less so in economic matters). He remains a go-to authority for his intuitive understanding of geography, logistics and the management men on the battlefield. Surprisingly, it is a skill that not all historians have. (Years ago, I remember being on a tour of Yorktown, a relatively small field of combat, with an expert on the American Revolution who kept confusing the British and American positions!) Particularly important is Belloc’s description of the social framework of feudal Europe—something that must seem alien to us, and which is very inaccurately conveyed in popular treatments of the Middle Ages, from Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels to modern films.

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