The Invention of the Crusades
They were at once appalled and intrigued by the ignorant and violent fanaticism involved in what David Hume imperishably described as 'the most signal and most durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation.' For Gibbon, as for Diderot and Voltaire, rational disdain was a cloak for profound anti-clericalism. There were different nuances. While Hume unequivocally dismissed superstition and militarism, in Diderot's entry on the crusades in the Encyclopaedia, the Olympian tone was tinged with frank astonishment at the quest for 'a piece of rock not worth a single drop of blood,' which he ascribed to a form of emotional or intellectual 'vertigo.' For Diderot, crusades were 'wars undertaken by Christians either for the recovery of the Holy Places or for the extirpation of heresy and paganism.' Crusaders were moved by 'imbecility and false zeal' or political self-interest, sustained by intolerance, ignorance, violence and the Church. Diderot thought the consequences of the crusades dire: the Inquisition, vast loss of life, the impoverishment of the nobility, decline in agriculture, a dearth of bullion, the collapse of ecclesiastical discipline and an increase in monastic wealth (not seen as a particularly good thing). Such attention, however superficial, to the long-term effects of the crusades became a central obsession of subsequent writers, suited to any King Charles's head, religious, philosophical, political, racial, imperial, economic or cultural.
Voltaire adopted a more favourable interpretation not of the crusade per se but of the individuals caught up in it. His History of the Crusades, which he later incorporated into the Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations (1756, but already in English translation in 1753) was altogether more scholarly than Diderot's piece. His use, for example, of Anna Comnena and Joinville led him to praise the heroes of each: the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I appeared as 'moderate and sagacious,' while for Louis IX was reserved the extravagant accolade: 'it is impossible for man to attain to a more sublime degree of virtue.' Frederick Barbarossa was applauded for the care with which he prepared for the Third Crusade; Saladin received a striking encomium: 'at once a good man, a hero and a philosopher;' and, rather pointedly, Frederick II's conduct on crusade in 1228-29 was described as 'a model of the most perfect policy.' The enterprise as a whole, however, was wasteful and pointless, the only tangible reward for western Europe being, in Voltaire's opinion, the freedoms that impoverished nobles were forced to grant 'divers boroughs.'
In his chapters on the crusades in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), which derived many attitudes directly from Voltaire, Gibbon presented heroism not as a function of-individuals but as a cultural feature of the medieval West which, although suborned by the Church, gave hope for the future. Within the crusade movement lurked an active energy which was ultimately to cast off the shackles of the 'savage fanaticism' (i.e. religious enthusiasm) Gibbon identified as 'the principal cause of the crusades'. This concept of harnessed barbarian energy is a theme touched on by Friedrich Schiller, who equated crusading with the age of migrations. On individuals and their motives, Gibbon's misanthropy, by turns amused and contemptuous, forbade the generosity of Voltaire. Saladin was a fanatic 'in a fanatic age,' a 'royal saint' and so a Muslim counterpart to Louis IX, promoter and victim of 'this holy madness,' whose crusade vow was 'the result of enthusiasm and sickness.'
From the lofty eminence of his reason, Gibbon inevitably criticized the crusades but was markedly even-handed in his condemnation of their excesses as compared with the harshness of Islam or the decadence of Byzantium. Some credit was even allowed. The loss of life and wealth among the nobility undermined 'the Gothic edifice', witnessed by charters of freedom to tenants as well as boroughs. In spite of themselves, the crusades were, in a limited area, a potential force for change, if not progress. Although in general the crusades 'checked rather than forwarded the maturity of Europe' and led to no discernible cultural or intellectual fertilization with Muslims or Greeks, nevertheless, following Joseph de Guignes's Histoire des Huns (1756-58), Gibbon suggested they opened western eyes to new horizons of trade, manufacture and technology.