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"The Crusades were the long-term result of the rise of Islam." Elizabeth Hallam, Chronicles of the Crusades
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 Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, establishing several Crusader states which would last for almost two centuries. They left their mark on the Western imagination, both then and now. They created an enduring legacy for the cultures of both the Christian and Islamic worlds. As with most great historical events, some of the legacy was positive and some negative. And they began a movement which lasted, according to many historians, beyond the Middle Ages and well into modern times.
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 Middle East in the millenium before 1095.
Beginning in the first century A.D., the religion known as Christianity arose in Palestine and spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, the Roman Empire had become officially and primarily Christian, as a result of peaceful missionary activity from within society (later church, or canon, law in fact forbade forced conversions). Jerusalem, Palestine and Syria, all within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, became predominantly Christian (the Jewish population of Jerusalem had been largely dispersed by pagan Roman authorities following the Jewish anti-Roman revolts of A.D. 66-70 and 132-135, and few Jews remained in the area).
In the seventh century A.D., the religion known as Islam arose in the Arabian peninsula. Like Christianity, Islam officially condemned forced conversions. But unlike Christianity, Islam instructed its followers to ensure that the world was under the political control of the Faithful. Hence Islam's political domination could be, and was, spread by the sword.
Carried on the backs of Arab cavalry, Islam burst out of Arabia and quickly took control of the Middle East. Byzantium and Persia, the two powers in the area, were exhausted by prolonged conflict with each other. Persia was completely defeated and absorbed into the Islamic world. The Middle Eastern armies of the Christian Byzantine Empire were defeated and annihilated in 636, and Jerusalem fell in 638. Through the rest of the seventh century, Arab armies advanced inexorably northwards and westwards.
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 France, where Charles Martel met and defeated their most ambitious raid near Tours around 732. This was to prove their high water mark in the West.
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 Sicily and other Mediterranean islands in the ninth century by the Muslims. In the tenth century the Byzantines made some limited gains along the periphery of the now-shrunken Empire, but did not retake Jerusalem.
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 Holy Land only in large, armed bands, groups who look in retrospect very like crusade rehearsals.
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 Armenia. As a result the entire heartland of the Empire, in Asia Minor, lay open and defenseless, and the Turks soon established themselves as far west as Nicaea, just across the Bosphorus from Constantinople. In the same year the Normans in southern Italy, led by Robert Guiscard, defeated the Byzantines at Bari and drove them off the Italian mainland.
The Imperial Byzantine crown was briefly contested following Manzikert and Bari; the successful claimant was Alexius Comnenus, a capable soldier and a clever diplomat. Perceiving that the Empire was deprived of its primary recruiting grounds and breadbasket, he sent out desperate calls for help to the West, particularly to the pope. Gregory VII briefly considered leading an expedition eastwards himself in support of the Byzantines. However, he was too preoccupied both by the Investiture Controversy with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, and by the growth of Norman power under Robert Guiscard in southern Italy, to respond in any meaningful way.
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 France, attending to various church business. By November he was in Clermont, and it was here that he gave a speech which caught the imagination of the West.
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 Jerusalem. Alexius had called for large contingents of mercenaries, particularly Normans, to come and take service in the Byzantine Army. Urban probably had something a little more elaborate than that in mind — among other things, he probably hoped that an expedition to the East, carried out under papal leadership and comprised of noblemen from across western Europe, would boost his position in the ongoing Investiture Controversy with the Holy Roman Empire.
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 Asia Minor the next year they were quickly massacred by the battle-hardened Turks. This has been called the Peasants' Crusade or, more properly, the Peoples' Crusade.
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 Jerusalem in the summer of 1099 and took it. The final result of the First Crusade was the establishment of four Latin "states" or "kingdoms" in the Middle East: the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Jerusalem exercised a certain vague suzerainty over the other three.
It is a curious fact that the capture of Jerusalem caused little stir in the Muslim world, and is scarcely mentioned in the Muslim chronicles of the time. It was not until later that the Muslims determined to take Jerusalem from the Christians a second time.
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 Middle East, and were viewed as just another set of players in the power struggles of the area.
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 County of Edessa and destroyed the oldest Crusader state.
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 Kingdom of Jerusalem at the mountain known as the Horns of Hattin, near the Sea of Galilee, and annihilated it. Within a few months he held all of the Kingdom except for the seaport of Tyre and a nearby castle.
Tyre held out, however, and the West once again came to the aid of the Crusader states by mounting the Third Crusade. Led by King Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, King Philip II Augustus of France, and Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, it managed to recover much of the lost territory. It passed into European and Muslim folklore as a time of great chivalry, particularly between Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted, who became the principle crusade leader. But despite Richard's best efforts, Jerusalem was not recovered. Both Richard and the local barons agreed that unless the powerbase of Egypt was in friendly hands, Jerusalem could not be kept even if it could be captured.
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 Holy Land at all. Through the intervention of Venetian commercial interests and disinherited Byzantine princes, it was diverted against the current government of Byzantium and ended in the capture and disastrous sack of Constantinople in 1204. Although the Byzantines recovered their capital in 1261, the Fourth Crusade did lasting damage to their Empire. By the time it was over, the frictions and misunderstandings between East and West which had begun with the First Crusade had turned into permanent hatred.
Disappointed, Innocent began preparations for another crusade. He died before it got under way in 1217. The Fifth Crusade was directed against Egypt, in recognition of the strategic reality which Richard had noted, and it was very nearly a complete success. But in the end it too failed.
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 Holy Land was once again lost to Christendom.
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 Byzantine Empire, putting an end to nearly 2,000 years of Roman Imperial rule in the East. They also pressed ever deeper into Central Europe.
The later Crusades
It used to be thought that the Crusades essentially ended in 1291, with the loss of the Holy Land. Recent scholars have argued that medieval men may have thought of expeditions to other places as carrying the same kind of weight and prestige as crusades to Syria-Palestine. The primary sources confirm that most if not all of the administrative mechanism which supported Crusades to the East also supported crusades to other theatres. Very few scholars cling to the notion that crusading died with the Holy Land. Rather we now see that the crusading idea evolved and adapted to changing circumstances and needs, remaining very much alive well into the modern period.
The Iberian peninsula had been the site of continual fighting since the Muslim Arabs invaded it in 711. By about the middle of the eleventh century, Christian forces had managed to recover about half the peninsula, and the popes, in order to help them in their struggle, had made limited indulgences available to those who came from other lands to assist the Spanish in their business of reconquest (known as the Reconquista). In some ways, then, the Reconquista may claim to be the real "first Crusade."
When St. Bernard preached the Second Crusade in the mid-1140s, after the fall of Edessa, the Spanish asked for and received similar crusade privileges for a renewed push against the Muslims. Additionally, the Saxons received some crusade privileges for an inconclusive crusade against their pagan neighbors, the Wends. Hence the Second Crusade was in fact a three-front war, and although this probably contributed to its ultimate failure, it also established the precedent that crusades could be officially declared for areas other than the Holy Land.
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 France. It became very widespread and proved impossible to stamp out by ordinary means such as persuasion. Eventually Innocent III declared a crusade against these heretics, making the Albigensian Crusade the first against internal enemies of Christendom instead of external ones.
Through this time period the papacy carried out a long conflict with the Holy Roman Empire, primarily fought in the Italian peninsula. At times of great need popes would sometimes declare crusades against their political enemies in these conflicts. This considerably devalued the crusading ideal and brought it into some disrepute.
Meanwhile, German bishops began missionary work among the Baltic pagans. Some Prussians, Lithuanians, and Livonians (people living the the area of modern Estonia and Latvia) did indeed convert, but their unconverted neighbors often persecuted and killed both converts and missionaries. Eventually the missionaries called for help to protect their converts, and crusades composed primarily of Germans answered the call.
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 Holy Land. The civilization of the pagan Prussians and Lithuanians was vastly inferior to that of the relatively sophisticated German Christians for one thing, and partly as a result the mutual respect which often marked contacts between Turks and Franks was almost entirely absent from the Baltic theatre. And as might easily be guessed, under the circumstances the Christian prohibition against forcible conversion sometimes became blurred and even forgotten.
The Teutonic Knights set up "Order-States" in both Prussia and Livonia, and soon their crusading policy became inextricably entwined with the foreign policy of these states. As a result the Teutonic Knights often found themselves "crusading" against Christians, including the Catholic Poles and the Orthodox Russians. Occasionally the papacy tried to restrain them, but without much effect.
At the end of the fourteenth century the Lithuanians converted en masse to Christianity, and the crowns of Lithuania and Poland were united in marriage. The combined power of the Polish-Lithuanian union proved too much for the Teutonic Knights. In 1410 they were badly defeated at the First Battle of Tannenberg, and they ceased to be a major player in the area thereafter. In the next century the Prussian and Livonian Teutonic Knights converted to Lutheranism and founded the secular duchies of Prussia and Courland, respectively.
Crusades were also called against the Hussites in Bohemia in the fifteenth century. The Hussites were followers of the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus, who was declared a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415. Many Bohemians, motivated by both religious and political reasons, revolted against their Catholic German rulers and formed a sort of republic. Several crusades were declared against them, but all failed. Eventually the Hussite Crusades were ended by a compromise, not by a crusade.
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 kingdom of Granada and finally recovering the peninsula which the Muslims had first seized in 711. The long centuries of crusading profoundly colored the Spanish psyche, however, and explain much of the activities of early modern Spain. It is interesting to note that Christopher Columbus explored in part to find a new route to Jerusalem, and also in part to acquire wealth that would enable the Catholic Kings of Spain to carry their Reconquista across North Africa and towards Jerusalem. Other conquistadors were apparently motivated by similar concerns, and the Spanish Armada, sent against Protestant England in 1588, had many of the legal aspects of a crusade.
Crusades were still being called as recently as 1683, when the Polish King Jan Sobieski led one to the rescue of Vienna, saving it from a deadly siege by the Muslim Ottoman Turks. After 1700, however, the threat from the Muslim world began to subside considerably, and as it subsided the last traces of organized crusading began to fade.
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 Pueblo, Colorado.
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.'"
Hallam, Elizabeth. Chronicles of the Crusades, New York, 1989, p. 19.
Crawford, Paul "The Crusades." Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies.
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Paul Crawford is assistant professor of history at Alma College. He was co-founder of the Online Reference Book (ORB) for Medieval Studies and edits the crusades and military sections of that project. Crawford also served as a consultant for a History Channel program on the Children's Crusades and recently completed a translation of the fourteenth-century Old French chronicle known as the Temple of Tyre. He is working on a book on the medieval Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller and with the help of students is digitizing a large library of crusades-related slides.
Copyright © 1997, Paul Crawford.