Dispatches from the History Major: "What I Learned About Catholicism From Studying the Crusades"

I hope you are enjoying “Dispatches from the History Major.” Here is the next installment from Messiah College sophomore history major James Mueller.  –JF

In my Tudor-Stuart England class this semester we’re currently discussing the English Reformation. We are reading Eamon Duffy’s The Voices of Morebath and David Underdown’s Fire from Heaven. Both books examine how two small villages in the West Country of England reacted to the radical religious changes of the time.

Watching the topography of the English spiritual landscape rapidly shift during the end of the Tudor Era has caused me to think about Protestantism and Catholicism in totally new ways. Its also made me realize how much contemporary Christians rely on historical memory rather than historical inquiry when they talk or think about religion.

I recall first noticing this subtle disparity between memory and history last spring while studying the Crusading Movement. I probably grew up like most Protestant home-schooled boys of my generation. My parents educated me using faith-based textbooks which were blatantly anti-Catholic. I tried to challenge my Catholic friends’ beliefs about Purgatory, the veneration of Saints, and the Eucharist– Sola Scriptura style.  I grew up in a faith setting that focused heavily on individual spiritual development, thus I was pretty certain I already knew everything there was to know about the Crusades.

It went something like this:


1) The Catholics were terribly corrupt; especially the Pope.
2) The Pope and his imperialistic crusaders decided to start a war in the Middle East because of their material greed.
3) The Pope and his army of Crusaders were not true Christians.
4) Thank God for the Reformation.

Did you cringe? I hope so.

I started to cut the Pope some slack after reading Pope Urban II’s Call for the First Crusade and studying the social and spiritual problems which plagued Europe prior to the Crusading Movement. I started to rethink my opinion about imperialism and material greed when I read about all the land and power medieval lords like Godfrey of Bouillon and Raymond Count of Toulouse gave up so that they could participate in the First Crusade. It was hard for me to continue to call Catholics like Bernard of Clairvaux “unChristian” after I read some of his letters and realized that he was more devout of a believer than I feel like I’ll ever be.

I walked away from that class saying, “Hmm. Maybe I’ve been wrong about Catholics.” I walked away from that class recognizing that historical memory is narrow and superficial. I walked away form that class realizing that the true pursuit of historical causation and truth can make a person a whole lot more empathetic than I thought possible.

NOTE:  There was, of course, plenty of ugly history I learned about during that Crusades course–stuff that had the potential for much moral criticism of the Crusading Movement as a whole, but that isn’t the primary focus of my post).

So here I am, on Easter, the Christian season of remembrance. Thinking about Puritans and Catholics, Holy Wars and Reformations, and how badly Christians think, talk, and treat their brothers and sisters of different denominations. I’m glad I study history. Not because I think it replaces our need for Christ or for divine reconciliation. Not because I can use it to write feel-good blogs that give us such happy historical pictures. I’m glad I study history because it helps me to understand. And understanding can go further than you think. I know it helped me to appreciate and love a different, but still very valuable, aspect of Christianity.

3 thoughts on “Dispatches from the History Major: "What I Learned About Catholicism From Studying the Crusades"

  1. It's also made me realize how much contemporary Christians rely on historical memory rather than historical inquiry when they talk or think about religion.

    I recall first noticing this subtle disparity between memory and history last spring while studying the Crusading Movement. I probably grew up like most Protestant home-schooled boys of my generation…

    Very nice.

    Next up: the Inquisition.

    http://americamagazine.org/issue/637/other-things/facing-inquisition

    With its vividly re-enacted scenes of torture, book burning and violence, the [2007] PBS series “Secret Files of the Inquisition” made clear that stereotypical views of the Inquisition are not going away anytime soon. It also ensured that a negative interpretation of this Catholic history will be embedded in popular culture, the history as told by those who view the Catholic Church as the foremost obstacle to everything modern and progressive.

    Although advertised as based on recently opened Vatican archives, the series contained little that is new. Despite the interviews with Catholic historians, it ignored virtually all the recent scholarship that could have produced a much more complete view of the Inquisition…

    As for the “Black Legend” and other propagandistic historiography versus Catholicism over the centuries, there is certainly another perspective:

    http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/history/the-myth-of-the-spanish-inquisition.html

    As the [1994 BBC] program documents, the 3,000 to 5,000 documented executions of the Inquisition pale in comparison to the 150,000 documented witch burnings elsewhere in [Protestant] Europe over the same centuries.

    Good stuff, James. Rock on. As far as our popular perceptions go, this area is practically virgin territory.

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  2. I didn't cringe with #1 because there has been well documented corruption in both Catholicism and Protestantism. I do cringe at #2 after just reading Rodney Stark's “God's Battalions.” I am a little ambivalent about #3 since making a claim to be Christian does not make one a Christian. That position results from decidedly NOT cringing at #4. The Reformation was indeed a great corrective to the waywardness of Roman Catholicism well summed up in the 5 Solas of the Protestant Reformers whether one considers framing those affirmations precisely in that way as anachronistic or not. Synthesis of ideas is quite helpful in getting your arms around history. And yes, I am unashamedly Protestant to the core.

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