A Review by Michael Whitcraft of The Apple of His Eye: Converts From Islam in the Reign of Louis IX, by William Chester Gordon.
When dying on the Cross, one of the suffering Christ’s last words was: “I thirst.” Exegetes throughout history have taught that, in addition to the tremendous physical thirst He must have endured due to massive blood loss, the Savior referred primarily to a spiritual thirst. The dehydration of His Flesh was a potent symbol of His Soul’s yearning for the salvation of all men, a desire that would remain tragically unquenched.
Throughout time, those who love Christ have shared this desire and angst. Indeed, it motivated some of history’s greatest undertakings, including the conversion of the barbarian hordes of Europe, the developing of Christian Civilization and the discovery and settling of the New World. However, could the Crusades in general, and specifically the Seventh and Eighth Crusades led by Saint Louis IX, also have been inspired by this thirst?
As unbelievable as this may seem, recent research attests that the answer to this question is a resounding yes. A 2019 book by renowned medievalist William Chester Jordon provides substantial research and argumentation to prove this claim. Titled The Apple of His Eye: Converts From Islam in the Reign of Louis IX, it demonstrates the efforts and successes Crusaders had in bringing Muslims into the Faith. This is epitomized by Saint Louis IX, who not only worked hard to convert his enemies but, once they converted, showered upon them fatherly care and protection for the rest of their lives.
A Desire to Convert
Dr. Gordon begins his book by explaining the universal desire of medieval Catholics to bring everyone into Christ’s Fold. This desire permeated many of their institutions. He shows that even the much-maligned Inquisitions held conversion of the wayward as a primary objective. He said: “The goal of these inquisitions was conversion, securing the return of contrite dissidents to the Catholic fold.”1
Thus, it should be no surprise that the Crusading armies were imbued with the same desire. Dr. Gordon demonstrates that the epic poems of the time often culminate with the conversion of a high-ranking Muslim leader, inducing his followers to accept the Faith after his example. Thus, he argues that conversion was a desire of the Crusaders even before their departure east. Interestingly, this scenario worried the Muslims themselves, who “feared that Christian victories over them would lead to waves of conversion.”2
Furthermore, on the eve of battle, Saint Louis instructed his troops to try to capture, rather than dispatch, the Muslim defenders they faced and to avoid killing their wives and children. That, coupled with the fact that he brought a veritable army of Dominican preachers to Egypt, is highly suggestive of the monarch’s apostolic motives.
Conversion and Fatherly Solicitude
Indeed, many Muslims did convert through the holy king’s efforts. Once converted, Saint Louis went to great lengths to support the new Catholics and help them maintain their new-found Faith. When it became evident that these converts would face dangers if they stayed in the Holy Land, he even managed to bring them to France, where he worked hard to integrate them into French society and religious practice.
Once in France, he rented a home to each of them to protect them from the all-too-common reprisals Islamic converts have always suffered in their own lands. Also, he granted them a living wage for the rest of their lives. This pension extended to any of their male children once they married and constituted a family (presumably, the female children who married would be supported by their husbands).
The extent of this assistance should not be underestimated. Dr. Gordon explains: “Let us imagine a three-year-old boy arriving in France in 1253, marrying at age twenty-five in 1275, and living another thirty years. By his death at age fifty-five in 1305, he and his father (or widowed mother) before him would have been receiving a pension and other subsidies for fifty-two years.”3
In addition, Saint Louis provided the converts with warm clothing and wood for their hearths to ease the suffering they would experience, moving from the warm Mediterranean climate to the cold winters of France.
Of course, his primary concern was to safeguard their Faith. To minimize the temptation to reversion, he settled them in northern France, far from the Muslims in Spain and the French Mediterranean coast.
However, his fatherly solicitude went further still. Fearful that they may be mistreated in their new homes, he assigned ombudsmen in every area where he settled them. These were tasked with listening to and providing redress for their complaints.
Dr. Gordon estimates that around 1,500 converts took advantage of the king’s generosity and lived the rest of their lives in France, where their children married into local families. Their descendants were entirely assimilated into their new land within a few generations.
Like all of his subjects, Saint Louis showered them with care and affection. Dr. Gordon believes they must have sensed this deeply. He said: “…the converts would also have perceived, at least from the royal program to deal with the famine, that the country’s ruler was not slow to come to the aid of his people. As one observer put it, the king’s subjects were the apple of his eye.”4
Dispelling Black Legends
Dr. Gordon’s book is well researched and utterly convincing. This type of book is important today when the consensus belief assumes that the Crusades were motivated by the desire for political control and financial gain. Much to the contrary, they were inspired by the love of God.
First of all, medieval Catholics feared for the future of their religion. Indeed, Muslim conquest had snatched the Faith from the very cradle of Christianity. This extended beyond the East and North Africa. Even Visigoth Spain had fallen to the Crescent. Had Charles Martel not stopped Islamic expansion at the Battle of Tours, France herself would have been lost. Indeed, defense of the Faith was a primary motive for those who took up the cross.
However, this does not tell the whole story. Inspired by the charity taught by Christ, true Crusaders desired the supreme good for their enemies: that they be brought into the Faith where they would serve God in this life and be happy with Him in the next. They thirsted for the salvation of the Muslims even as they risked their lives to wage war against them.
The great Saint Louis IX epitomized this spirit. Thus, he has always been upheld as a model of the true Crusading spirit that includes an authentic love for one’s enemies. Much is owed to Dr. Gordon for highlighting this reality and setting the record straight.