Tom McMahon sounds a bit frustrated at the beginning of today's commentary. He picked up Karen Armstrong's book on the Crusades hoping that it might shed light on the insights he was seeking. Evidently it turned out to be a disappointment so he has begun searching elsewhere for the particular information he's after in this extended exploration of how civilisation, the priests themselves, developed the psyche of priesthood that has been so familiar in our day — and which seems to be losing its tarnish.
Derailed … What have the crusades got to do
A blank computer screen stares at me as I experience frustration concerning the Middle Ages, the Crusades, and "getting it all together". I am working a jigsaw puzzle. finding that some pieces are ill-cut and just don't fit. I found Karen Armstrong's HOLY WAR at our seminary library, finding it difficult reading as Karen seems to glide through periods of time bypassing significant persons, events, and eras that are crucial connections to my understanding of the Middle Ages. The book was published in 1991 which means research was done more than 20 years ago on this Dark Ages period which up until recently has been sparse on facts and understanding. Remember Edward Schillebeckx's admonition concerning religious facts: "hard facts are difficult to come by in this period".
At least ten times in her first chapter IN THE BEGIINNING I felt like I was too easily led to conclusions that just weren't historically so; it was like I was eating a sandwich of Swiss cheese that had far too many holes. I had banked upon HOLY WAR to supply me a pathway of understanding; to meet my deadline with Catholica I now need to fall back on previous information in my possession. I sense I may have run into a cul de sac … perhaps this era of crusades has little to do with the psychology of the Roman Catholic cleric … or maybe it has. This cul de sac with its dead end is becoming a most interesting place to meet the players who make the Middle Ages.
We have moved in our search for the simple priest through the fall of the Roman Empire, past the era of Charlemagne and find ourselves in this historical cul de sac of the age of feudalism. Who are the people who make up this feudal plantation type civilization? Who are the players? Religion and politics are by now deeply entwined, a pseudo-Christianity being the life-governing system of what we call the Holy Roman Empire. From deep along the Silk Road that connects trade to the Far East followers of Mohammed have begun to take power in the Mediterranean as far as Spain.
The Knights Templar...
KNIGHTS TEMPLAR: aka The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. This is one of the favorite charities in Europe for two centuries during the crusading era. Once nine in number their membership swelled to 20,000. Horse knights wore a while mantel with embroidered red cross; 90% were non combatants. With papal privilege as Europe became isolated from local laws Templars could pass through borders freely without taxation, and for two hundred years grew in membership, land holdings and wealth. Robbery along the journey was rampant. In 1150 they initiated what would be known in our day as "checks", letters of credit for pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land, thus bypassing the bandits. Theirs was a primitive multi-national banking system that exists to this day. Owning their own fleet of ships and the whole of the Island of Cyprus with their military mission now less important the Templars ran afoul of Pope Clement the 5th (he owed the Templars a huge sum of money) who issued a papal bull in 1307 instructing all Christian kings in Europe to arrest all Templars and seize their assets. (One wonders if Marcel's Legionnaires of Christ are the present day survivors.)
The arrest and torture to death of Grandmaster Jacques de Molay will leave a profound heritage. In 1919 in Kansas City, Missouri, De Molay International was founded, a Masonic youth organization initially helpful to sons of military men killed in World War One. When I was a young boy the De Molay and Job's Daughters were definitely out of bounds for Catholic kids. We were never told their real purpose.
SALADIN: here we have a combination of the American George Washington and Simon Bolivar, acclaimed liberator of six Central American Countries. Saladin was a Kurd, a strict practitioner of Sunni Islam. Uniting the many tribes he led the Moslems against the Crusaders, recapturing Palestine from the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Saladin is a notable person in Kurdish, Arab, Persian, Turkish, and Moslem culture, while being highly respected for his chivalry in European writings as well as his wisdom and skill as a world ruler. Powerful people today might learn well from him. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire in WW1 we have lost sight of this great man.
KNIGHTS HOSPITALLER: aka Sovereign Military Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, Order of St. John, Knights of Malta, and Chevaliers. Founded in Jerusalem in 1080 to provide care for the poor and sick pilgrims to the Holy Land, Hospitallers are a religious/military order charged with care and defense of the Holy Land. After Islamic occupation their work spreads out to the Amalfi (Italian) Coast, occupying Rhodes and Malta. Pope Gregory the Great had initiated their work in 600 by building a hospital which was enlarged under Charlemagne in 800 and destroyed in 1005 by Caliph Al Hakim, along with 3000 other Jerusalem buildings. Pope Paschal the 2nd in 1113 confirms them as a monastic order which eventually provides armed protection to pilgrims. We find them as the Knights of Rhodes fighting with the Barbary Pirates in 1300's. In 1530 King Charles V of Spain gave the Hospitallers Malta in exchange for an annual fee … one Maltese Falcon, this being the basis of the famous book by Dashiell Hammett.
TEUTONIC KNIGHTS: aka The Order of the Teutonic Knights of St. Mary's Hospital in Jerusalem. We find these knights are formed in the 12th century as toll takers at Acre which fell to the Moslems in 1291, marking the end of crusades to the Levant. Acre was a base of operations for the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Levant is traditionally seen as the Eastern Mediterranean — the East 'where the sun rises' (latin levare = to rise) or that territory which is east of Venice. Circa 1274 Pope Gregory failed to enlist Europe's nobility and clergy for anther crusade, an effort that fell through mainly due to the corruption of the clergy. We find the order in Poland in the 1500's — crusades that we will look at in future commentaries.
THE PEOPLE OF THE CRUSADES: … they are a mixed lot, rich and poor, politically powerful and simple of faith, women, men and, children from diverse cultures of the Holy Roman Empire. They are monks and clergy as well as beggars and thieves. It will be interesting to see how they survived and how they ate.
Let me conclude here with what impacts me today concerning the players of the age of crusades: (i) the world is a big place and trouble brews where powerful people extend their power beyond reasonable limits; (ii) the mission of Jesus is compromised when political and financial gain submerges the spiritual, particular the beatitudes; (iii) the present day papal structure is root-bound, unable to reach out and nourish spiritually all the peoples of the earth; it is still stuck in a Middle Ages frame work in spite of new scientific discoveries and individual freedoms (cf Michael Morwood's credo). We have moved from the systems of the Middle Ages to an age of enlightenment based on the dignity of the person. We have no need for war or disputes with our neighbor. We are in need of dialogue to get to know and understand one another. The earth is God's and we need to justly distribute God's generosity. We need to view Jesus as a model for humans living at peace with one another. The era of the crusades and the people of the time are not valuable models for us today.
A few years ago the small diocese of San Jose, Ca. made some Knights and Dames of the Lord only knows where, perhaps Malta, honoring well-known Catholics with titles, swords, and fancy garments. Those well known in town for their money and conservatism. I don't see this as the Jesus path.
Next week: A look at the 18 Crusades and the Cathars who may have some relatives in our family.
Tom McMahon, San Jose, Ca. (27/09/09)
What are your thoughts on this commentary?