"The Crusades were the long-term result of the rise of Islam." Elizabeth Hallam, Chronicles of the Crusades
On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II gave an important speech at the end of a church council in
The Speech of Urban II at Clermont, Nov. 27, 1095:
The response to Urban's speech must have startled even the Pope. Large numbers of Franks, both noble and common, answered his call with great enthusiasm, and streamed eastwards in several waves. Beyond all reasonable expectations, they retook
What were the Crusades? Who participated in them? Why did they occur?
Political and military background
To begin to answer the question, "What were the Crusades?" one must first consider the history of Europe and the
Beginning in the first century A.D., the religion known as Christianity arose in
In the seventh century A.D., the religion known as Islam arose in the
Carried on the backs of Arab cavalry, Islam burst out of Arabia and quickly took control of the
By the early eighth century Arab forces had reached the Straits of Gibraltar, and in 711 they crossed into European Spain and shattered the armies of the Christian Visigoths. By 712 they had reached the center of the Iberian Peninsula, and by the 730s they were raiding deep into the heart of
For the next 300 years Christians and Muslims engaged in a protracted struggle, including the siege of Constantinople by the Arabs in 717-18, and the seizure of
In the middle of the eleventh century the Arabs were displaced as leaders of Islam by the Turks, who converted to Islam even as they conquered the Arabs. The Turks disrupted the area's political and social structures and created considerable hardships for Western pilgrims. Up till now most Arab rulers of the area had been fairly tolerant of Christian interest in the Holy Places (one notable exception was the "Mad" Caliph Hakim at the beginning of the eleventh century, who destroyed churches and persecuted Jews and Christians). By the second half of the eleventh century, most pilgrims were going to the
The Turks also posed a new threat to the Byzantines. In 1071 the Turks met and crushed the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert, near
The Imperial Byzantine crown was briefly contested following Manzikert and
Alexius continued to appeal to the West, however, and in the spring of 1095 Pope Urban II allowed Byzantine delegates to address the Council of Piacenza, and he gave his sanction to those nobles who were inclined to respond. He then proceeded into
It is hard to know exactly what Urban had in mind when he called for expeditions to the East. We have various texts of his speech; none agree exactly, but it seems unlikely that Urban envisaged waves of Frankish peasants travelling to
The First Crusade
Neither Alexius nor Urban got exactly what they had had in mind. Large numbers of poorer knights and peasants answered the call immediately and set off without proper preparation. This sort of participation was not what the authorities had had in mind, and no one was prepared to deal with them.
Some of these unsolicited crusaders carried out massacres against German Jews on the way, on the theory that the battle against Christ's enemies ought to begin at home. This activity was not sanctioned by the Church, and the Church was at some pains to suppress it, with varying degrees of success.
When these crusaders arrived in
The Frankish barons, accustomed to war and its necessary preparations, waited until the appointed departure time, in summer 1096, and then set out in several large contingents, by various routes. No kings participated in their crusade, the First Crusade proper; the leadership was made up of several high nobles and a papal legate. The best known of these leaders included Bohemond of Taranto, Raymond of Toulouse, Hugh of Vermandois, Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin of Boulogne, Robert of Flanders, and Robert of Normandy. The papal legate was the Bishop of Le Puy, Adhmar.
After a long, dangerous and hard journey, the First Crusaders finally reached
It is a curious fact that the capture of
Crusades and counter-Crusades
After the astonishing success of the First Crusade, many crusaders fulfilled their vows by completing their pilgrimage at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and went home.
Others stayed, however, and continued to build up the society known as Outremer (Old French for "Across the Sea"), consisting of the four Crusader States established by the First Crusade. They quickly became part of the world of the
One of their contributions to history was the formation of the military religious order, or "military order," in the early part of the twelfth century. These orders, a fusion of the monastic and knightly callings, were both a response to the desperate need for manpower in the East, and an example of the way the Church was attempting to tame and even monasticize the warrior class.
Eventually, however, as the Muslim world began to recover from the disruptions caused by the Turkish invasions, major Muslim leaders began to emerge. These men sought to reunite the Islamic world under one ruler, and they quickly saw that one way to gain prestige as an Islamic leader was to show that one could win victories against the Christian Franks (or "polytheists," as the Muslims often called them). In this way the Islamic Counter-Crusade arose. The Islamic Counter-Crusade was a form of Jihad, an Islamic doctrine which roughly parallels, but does not exactly duplicate, the Christian doctrine of Holy War.
The first such leader was Zengi. On Christmas Eve, 1144, Zengi's troops took the capital of the
The West reacted strongly to this disaster, and the result was the Second Crusade, preached by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and led by King Louis VII of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. The Second Crusade was a near complete failure, however, and people quickly lost interest in another such expedition.
Meanwhile, successors to Zengi such as Nur ed-Din continued nibbling away at the Crusader states. After Nur ed-Din's death the mantle of Islamic leadership fell on a Kurdish officer named Salah ed-Din, or Saladin as he is commonly known in the West. Saladin was arguably the greatest of Muslim generals, and possessed an appealing and admirable character. In 1187 he caught the entire army of the
In 1198 the great medieval pope Innocent III came to power. He was intensely interested in crusading, and one of his first acts was to promote a Fourth Crusade. Unfortunately, this crusade suffered a series of mischances and never reached the
Disappointed, Innocent began preparations for another crusade. He died before it got under way in 1217. The Fifth Crusade was directed against
The Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Crusades accomplished some limited objectives. None was really successful, though the Seventh Crusade in particular, led by King Louis IX (St. Louis) of France, has come down to us as a romantic episode equal in some ways to the Third Crusade. Meanwhile, the Muslim Counter-Crusade recovered from the setback of the Third Crusade, and in 1291, the Christians were driven from their last strongholds. The
Having seized the initiative, the Muslims retained it. It was difficult to get Western Europeans interested in crusades unless they lived in areas bordering the Muslims, and France and England were about to begin the Hundred Years' War, a conflict which would distract them and absorb their resources. Notable lesser crusades were in fact mounted in 1365 (Crusade of Alexandria), 1396 (Crusade of Nicopolis), and 1444 (Crusade of Varna), and there was scarcely a time when someone, somewhere, was not on a small scale crusade. But the Turks increasingly seemed invincible. In 1453 they took Constantinople from the last survivors of the
The later Crusades
It used to be thought that the Crusades essentially ended in 1291, with the loss of the
When St. Bernard preached the Second Crusade in the mid-1140s, after the fall of
Another step in the evolution of crusading came at the beginning of the thirteenth century. A dualist heresy, whose followers were known as Cathars or Albigensians, arose in southern
Through this time period the papacy carried out a long conflict with the
Meanwhile, German bishops began missionary work among the Baltic pagans. Some Prussians, Lithuanians, and Livonians (people living the the area of modern
Soon a military order, the largely German Teutonic Knights, became involved in the area, and a perpetual Baltic Crusade against the heathen began. This conflict was marked by a much greater level of savagery than that in the
The Teutonic Knights set up "Order-States" in both
At the end of the fourteenth century the Lithuanians converted en masse to Christianity, and the crowns of
Crusades were also called against the Hussites in
From this account it might appear that the beginning of the Crusades was a purely military and political affair. This was not the case, however. There were many other elements which laid the groundwork for the phenomenon of crusading, which involved the participation of Christians in organized warfare on behalf of their religion and their God.
In the beginning Christianity had an ambivalent attitude towards warfare. Pacifism was never the official position of the Church; although there was always a pacifist faction within Christianity, some of the first Christian converts were soldiers and apparently remained at their jobs after their conversion (see Acts 10). After the Roman government became officially Christian, however, Christian officials needed guidelines for the use of violence. In response to this need the doctrine of Just War was evolved. It assumed that violence was evil, but acknowledged that passivity in the face of others' violence might be a greater evil. Consequently three main conditions were laid down; if these conditions were meet,Christian people could engage in warfare without fear of damnation. The war must have a Just Cause, it must be waged under Due Authority, and the Christian combatants must have Right Intentions.
The theological structure of Just War is complicated, but in brief, it meant that the war must be waged either to avoid a likely injury or to rectify a past injury; it must be waged under the direction and at the call of a supreme governmental authority; and that the violence employed might not be excessive (i.e., only that degree of violence which was absolutely necessary might be imposed).
In the tenth and eleventh centuries, a number of churchmen (primarily monks) became concerned about the moral and organizational state of the Church. They formed a movement, sometimes known as the Cluniac Reform movement, which eventually took control of the papacy and brought sweeping change to Western Christianity.
One of these changes involved an adjustment to the Just War doctrine. Church and state were closely intertwined in this period, and some thinkers concluded that this meant that Christ's Will for mankind, embodied in the Church, could also be advanced by the political structures of Christian peoples. They also theorized that violence might not simply be the lesser of two evils (as the doctrine of Just War stipulated); violence, they said, was morally neutral, and those who used violence to advance Christ's kingdom might be doing positive good. The doctrine is known as Holy War.
Another change involved the noble warrior classes of the West. Fighting men had defended Christian civilization against successive waves of barbarian assaults in the second half of the first millennium, but by the eleventh century the barbarians (including Vikings, Magyars, and others) were either tamed or destroyed. Only the Muslims, or "Saracens," were left. In areas which were far from the Muslim frontier, these noble warriors turned their energies on each other or worse, on the non-combatants around them. This endemic violence in society plainly contradicted Christian teaching and deeply troubled thoughtful churchmen.
The reforming monks put considerable effort into taming these unruly noble warriors. Various church councils proposed times when hostilities must cease, and stipulated that noncombatants (peasants, clerics, women, merchants) must not be attacked. These attempts had only limited success.
Another element of West European society which undoubtedly influenced formation of crusading was excitement and speculation about the Second Coming of Christ, or millenarialism. Scholars argue over the importance of this factor, but it seems likely that at least some people believed that Jerusalem must beheld by Christians before Christ would return, and some people (particularly among the lower classes) had a vague mental picture of "Jerusalem" which conflated the earthly city in Palestine and the Heavenly Jerusalem. Bad as it might be for unbelievers to hold the earthly city, it would be much worse for them to rule the heavenly one.
Socio-economic factors contributed to the formation of the Crusades as well. In the second half of the first millennium West Europeans adopted a number of agricultural innovations, including the heavy plow and the horse collar. It seems likely that these innovations increased food production, which in turn increased population, making manpower for expeditions available (and possibly creating pressure on existing resources which led men to begin looking for external adventures, according to some historians). In addition, the rise of a class of lesser nobles who collected and disposed of local production with relative efficiency may have contributed, by focussing resources in the hands of the very people who could most profitably assist the crusades.
Some scholars used to make much of the idea that crusaders gained great wealth from the Crusades, and that most crusaders were motivated by greed and a hunger for power. The primary sources do not bear this out, as crusading seems to have been a hard, lonely, expensive, dangerous proposition. Few if any serious students of the Crusades accept this explanation today.
It also used to be fashionable to portray the crusaders as musclebound, dull-witted warriors led by fanatical clerics, out to slaughter anything which crossed their path. While such individuals certainly participated in the crusades (and have been present in every age of history), the primary sources do not support this view either. It took considerable erudition and careful thought to formulate the doctrines which supported the crusades, and it took great skill to shepherd large numbers of men and women across strange and hostile territory. This view, too, is now mostly discredited.
There are other factors which laid the groundwork for the Crusades, but those described here were some of the most important ones.
One should keep in mind that the Crusades were an immensely complex phenomenon, spread across many lands and centuries. Many motivations for crusading existed, and many probably coexisted within the minds of individual crusaders.
Crusading vows and privileges
Regardless of motivation, an individual underwent a specific ceremony before he could be considered a "crusader." The ceremony evolved somewhat over the centuries, but its general outlines remained the same. A would-be crusader sought out an ecclesiastical authority (a priest, bishop or higher cleric) and swore to carry out an armed "pilgrimage" in support of the Holy Places. He then usually received a cloth cross which he could place on his clothes to signify his new status.
Crusading vows were usually taken in response to official preaching of a crusade by licensed churchmen. They were supposed to be taken only by fighting men or those who could otherwise contribute to a military effort, and they were not to be taken without the permission of the crusader's wife, since his long absence would deprive her of what was delicately called "marital rights" (Pope Innocent III, in need of troops for his crusading proposals, changed this in the thirteenth century, but in doing so he violated longstanding Church tradition and the plain intentions of canon law).
The crusader's property and people were then placed under the protection of the Church, and he was to begin preparing to leave. If he did not discharge his vow within a certain period of time, he might be excommunicated by the church until he kept his word.
Crusaders were often offered an indulgence in return for participation in the hardships of a crusade. The indulgence was later seriously abused, and the word acquired a justifiably obnoxious connotation. But in the beginning it was another of those carefully thought out doctrinal innovations that attended the reforms of the tenth and eleventh centuries.
In brief, the indulgence assumed that if an individual were truly penitent for his sins, he might obtain remission or forgiveness for the temporal penalties of those sins by performing some arduous, virtuous or unpleasant task to compensate for them. This remission could apply to penalties imposed by the Church on earth (i.e., to penance prescribed for sin), and it might also apply to penalties imposed by the Church in the next world (i.e., to time spent in purgatory).
Most medieval people were deeply interested in their fate in the next world, and the indulgence was a powerful incentive to participate in crusades. It was especially effective amongst the very people whom the Church was trying to recruit: the baron who was a competent warrior but who had perhaps been applying that competence to unlawful targets such as other Christians and who, as a result, had a guilty conscience.
It should be noted, too, that crusaders did not take vows to "go on crusade." The very term crusade, in English or in any other language, is a much later invention. What we call "crusades," contemporaries knew as "pilgrimages" or even simply "journeys" ("iter" or "peregrinatio" in Latin, "pelerinage" in French).
The Spanish completed their Reconquista in 1492, defeating the Muslim
Crusades were still being called as recently as 1683, when the Polish King Jan Sobieski led one to the rescue of
One might say that crusading finally ended in 1798, when Napoleon defeated the Hospitaller military order on Malta.One might even bring it up to 1945, when the last cruzado or crusade tax was officially abolished in the Roman Catholic diocese of
As with all great human endeavors the crusades had their high points and their low points. T. S. Eliot said, "Among [them] were a few good men, Many who were evil, And most who were neither, Like all men in all places." Those who would defend them blindly, and those who would seek to apologize for them, are probably equally misguided. Certainly they were a reaction to centuries of assaults on Christendom by Arab and other Islamic forces; they were also the product of that same powerful, active, aggressive, curious, energetic approach which made Western Civilization the master of most of the globe by 1900.
Rather than viewing them as Good or as Evil, perhaps we ought to view them simply as Fact, and then derive what lessons or inspirations we can from them.
This article has presented a brief overview of the Crusades. Further articles will treat specific areas in much greater detail, and will be posted here as they become available.
Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems 1909-1962, San Diego, New York & London, 1984, p. 165, "Choruses from 'The Rock.'"
Crawford, Paul "The Crusades." Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies.
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Paul Crawford is assistant professor of history at
Copyright © 1997, Paul Crawford.