Misconception #2: The Crusaders Were Greedy Opportunists
One popular history textbook talks about the Crusades as the exploits of soldiers of fortune: “The Crusades fused three characteristic medieval impulses: piety, pugnacity, and greed. All three were essential” (Warren Hollister, J. Sears McGee, and Gale Stokes, The West Transformed: A History of Western Civilization, vol. 1 [New York: Cengage/Wadsworth, 2000], 311).
The idea that the Crusades can be boiled down to the exploits of greedy opportunists is slanted, narrow, and held by the credulous. Of course, every military endeavour has its stories. There are always going to be those who engage in war with passions motivated by personal and selfish gain. Therefore, there is no need to defend those who lost sight of the most noble objective (protection of the West and the capture of the Holy Land).
However, it must be understood that most of the Crusaders had to spend their own fortunes to embark on the Crusades. Plundering Muslim towns did nothing more than help finance the war. This was not anything out of the ordinary in those days. Even the wealthiest nobles had to trade most of their wealth to “take up the cross” of a Crusade. These knights, counts, and kings rarely expected to receive a flow of land and wealth from the east. In fact, the primary leaders of the first Crusade (Godfrey of Bouillon, Bohemond of Taranto, and the great Raymond of Toulouse) all swore an oath to Alexius, Emperor of Constantinople, that any lands won would be placed back into the Roman Empire (even if two of the three reneged on this oath after Alexius’ perceived betrayal). Raymond of Toulouse had everything to lose. He gave all of his lands to his son before he left. The financial risk become more severe as the Crusades carried on throughout the years. King of France Louis IX’s seventh Crusade, in the mid-thirteenth century, cost more than six times the annual revenue of the crown.
In short, the money flow was primarily from West to East, not from East to West. For most, the Crusades led to bankruptcy rather than wealth, which is why indulgences became abused and the Crusades eventually had to stop. Criticize the Crusades for many things, but to say that those who “took up the cross” were greedy opportunists evidences a naive indulgence in revisionist history.