The Crusades were a series of military expeditions, originating in parts of Europe, to the eastern Mediterranean world. The real reason that they feature so prominently in history is not so much due to their historical importance, but, rather, due to the fact that the stories of the Crusades have been endlessly romanticised. Throughout the centuries, storytellers such as Sir Walter Scott in his Tales of the Crusaders, have created simple narratives of good versus bad with characters to root for and against.
The reality is a little… OK a lot more convoluted than this.
Let’s just begin by saying that initially the Crusades were definitely not a Holy War as part of some greater conflict of Christian Europe against Islam. However, that being said, the Crusades were driven, in part, by religious faith.
If the Crusades had been brought about by the lightning fast rise of the Islamic Empire and an overwhelming desire to keep the lands of Jesus in Christian hands, then they would have begun in the eighth century. However, the early Islamic Empires like the Umayyad and Abbasid were perfectly happy for Jews and Christians to live amongst them so long as they paid a tax. Besides much like the Bedouin Arab pilgrimage had once been a boon for the Prophet Muhammad’s hometown of Mecca, the Christian pilgrimage business was similarly great for the Islamic Empire’s economy.
It all came to an end when another group of Muslims, the Seljuk Turks, moved into the area in the eleventh century and sacked the Holy cities and made it more difficult for Christians to make their pilgrimages. They soon realised that this had been a massive mistake, but it was too late. The Byzantines, who the Seljuks had defeated at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, feared this new threat coming from the east and called upon their fellow Christians in the west for help.
The call was answered in 1095 by Pope Urban II.
The Early Crusades
Medieval politics more than anything drove the decision to launch the First Crusade. This was partly because Urban wanted to unite Europe and he figured that there was no greater way to do this than to provide them with a common enemy. He pleaded with the bickering nobility and knights of Europe to help their Byzantine brethren and liberate Jerusalem. Of course, there was an ulterior motive to this seeming act of alliance. The Great Schism of 1054 was still within living memory at this time and perhaps if Urban were to call some sort of action to aid his fellow Christians then this would provide him with some leverage for asking the Orthodox Byzantines to convert back to Roman Catholicism.
Pope Urban shifting the focus of invasion towards Jerusalem was an integral part of the plan as this First Crusade was not designed to be, primarily, a military operation. Instead, it was supposed to be one massive pilgrimage. It must be noted here that, theologically speaking, Christianity did not have a concept of a Holy War. A war may be just (as established by Saint Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century) but fighting was not something that got you into heaven… Pilgrimages on the other hand, especially to a holy shrine, could help you out on that front and Urban had the key insight to pitch the First Crusade as a pilgrimage with a sprinkling of war on the side.
One final myth that must be dispelled is that the Crusades were not an example of early European colonisation of the Middle East; even if they did establish some European-based kingdoms there for a while. This idea formulated hundreds of years later from an anti-colonialist reading of history, that stemmed from, in part, Marx’s interpretation of historical colonialism. This idea comes from the argument that it tended to be the second and third sons of wealthy nobles who went adventuring into the Levant. Due to European inheritance rules of the time these sons were lower down the pecking order and had little to look forward to by staying in Europe, whilst having lots to gain from plundering the Holy Lands.
Although this is may be a neat theory, it is a wrong theory. Firstly, most of the people who responded to Pope Urban’s call to crusade were not wealthy knights, but rather peasants and other poor people. Secondly, the nobles who did go crusading were mostly the lords of the estates and not their profligate children.
Most importantly, that analysis ignores religious motivations and instead focuses on the guts and glory adventurism that was romanticised by later writers. So far in this series, we have approached religions as historical phenomenon; for example, how the unpredictable environment of Mesopotamia led to an erratic and unpredictable pantheon of Mesopotamian gods. However, just as the environment shapes religion, religion also shapes the environment and although some modern historians may ignore the religious motivations of the crusades, the medieval crusaders who went on them sure did not: they genuinely believed that God was on their side.
The crusaders believed that they were taking up arms to protect Christ and his Kingdom. What better way to demonstrate your devotion than painting a cross on your shield, spending several times your annual income to outfit yourself and all your horses for war and heading east to the Holy Land? Answer: there was no better way to honour God for European Christians of this period. So, when these people marching east cried out “God will’s it!” to explain their reasoning for going, we should believe that they meant it!
And the result of the First Crusade did seem to indicate that god had, indeed, willed it.
Following the lead of itinerant preachers with names like Peter the Hermit, thousands of peasants and noblemen alike volunteered for Pope Urban II’s First Crusade. It did get off to a slightly rocky start as the pilgrims had a bad habit of robbing those that they encountered on the way east. Plus, there was no real leader to speak of, so there were constant rivalries between the noblemen who could supply the most troops… I mean, pilgrims. Notable amongst the notable nobles were Godfrey of Bouillon, Bohemund of Taranto and Raymond of Toulouse.
Despite the disorganisation and the rivalries, the crusaders were miraculously successful. By the time that they arrived in the Levant they were fighting not against the Seljuk Turks but, rather, against the Fatimid Egyptians who had captured the Holy Lands from the Seljuk Turks. At the ancient city of Antioch (modern day southern Turkey near the border with Syria) the Crusaders reversed a seemingly hopeless situation when a peasant allegedly uncovered the spear that had pierced the side of Christ hidden under a church. This miraculous discovery rose the Christian army’s morale enough for them to triumph over the enemy. Soon after, the Crusader army did the impossible and captured the Holy City itself. The climax of the First Crusade saw the Crusader Army capture Jerusalem and secure the city for Christendom in the summer of 1099. This great victory was infamously overshadowed by the slaughter of tens of thousands of Muslim and Jewish men, women and children.
The Crusaders succeeded in part because the Turkish Muslims, who were Sunni, refused to help their Egyptian brethren as they were Shi’ite. This complicated inter-Islamic rivalry gets in the way of a miraculous narrative of Christians triumphing over Muslims: the Christians simply saw their victory as divinely inspired by God.
European nobles held both the strategic city of Antioch and the holy city of Jerusalem as Latin Christian kingdoms by 1100. There were already Christians living in these cities but they tended to be Orthodox as opposed to Catholic; an issue that will soon become relevant to the tale of the Crusades.
The Second Crusade (1147-1150) was a complete disaster from the point of view of the Christians. They lost in Anatolia and at the city of Damascus. Their one success was at the city of Lisbon… in Portugal… at the complete other end of the Mediterranean Sea from the Holy Lands that we tend to associate with the Crusades of the medieval period.
The Third Crusade (1189-1192) is the most famous Crusade. This is the one that we tend to think of when we think of the Crusades. Broadly speaking, this Crusade was a European response to a rising Islamic power which was neither Turkish nor Abbasid. The Egyptian (although he was actually a Kurd) sultan, An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known today as Saladin, had consolidated his power in Egypt and was looking to expand his influence by taking the cities of Damascus and Jerusalem. The loss of Jerusalem prompted Pope Gregory VIII to issue a call for another Crusade in 1189. Three of the most prominent European monarchs answered Gregory’s call:
- Philip II of France
- Richard I of England
- Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire
Both Richard, whom history remembers as the “Lionheart”, and Saladin were great generals who commanded the respect of their troops. Whilst from a European perspective, the Crusade was viewed as a failure as the Crusader Army failed to recapture Jerusalem, it did radically change crusading by turning Egypt into a target. Richard, ever the strategist, understood that his best chance of taking Jerusalem was to first conquer Egypt. However, he could not convince any of his fellow Crusader commanders to join him because Egypt held much less of a religious value to Christians than the Holy City of Jerusalem did. Richard was forced to call off the Crusade early but if he had just hung around until the Easter of 1192 then he would have seen Saladin die and would probably have succeeded in his goals.
The Disastrous Crusade
The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) was a little… shall we say crazy. More than thirty-five thousand (35,000) people volunteered for the Fourth Crusade and the generals did not fancy marching such a large force all the way through Anatolia as it was dangerous and very hot. Instead, they decided to go by ship which required building the largest fleet Europe had seen since the times of the Roman Empire. The Crusaders employed the shipbuilders of Venice to build five hundred (500) ships but unfortunately for the financiers of this enterprise only around eleven thousand (11,000) of the expected thirty-five thousand Crusaders showed up to Venice. There was not enough money to pay for the Venetian built ships, so a deal was stuck between the Crusaders and the people of Venice. The Venetians agreed to ferry the Crusader Army to Anatolia if they, in turn, helped the Venetians recapture the rebellious city of Zara which lay across the Adriatic Sea in modern day Croatia. This was a little problematic as the city of Zara was a Christian city. However, the Crusaders agreed to help which led to Pope Innocent III briefly excommunicating both the Crusader Army and the people of Venice. The excommunication order on the crusaders was rescinded soon after, once it was decided by the powers that be that the Venitians had coerced them into sacking the city.
Although they were no longer excommunicated, they were still broke; enter a would-be Byzantine Emperor named Alexios who promised to pay the Crusaders if they helped him out. So now there was a situation where excommunicated Catholic Crusaders, who had no chance of reaching heaven due to their earlier excommunication, were fighting on behalf of the Orthodox Alexios who soon became Emperor Alexios IV and sat on his throne in Constantinople.
Alexios took his time procuring the money that he had promised to the Crusaders in return for their help in capturing the Byzantine throne. This led to the Crusader Army hanging around the city of Constantinople waiting to be paid, which made the people of the city very uncomfortable and anti-Crusader sentiment engulfed the populace. Alexios IV was deposed by anti-Crusader cheerleader Alexios Doukas (nicknamed Mourtzouphlos), who became Emperor Alexios V and refused to pay the crusaders the money that had been promised to them by Alexios IV.
Surely Christian warriors could not sack the largest and most important city in the whole of Christendom, could they? As it turns out, yes. Yes, they could.
In April 1204 the Crusaders sacked Constantinople for three days, during which time many ancient Greco-Roman and medieval Byzantine works of art were stolen or ruined. Much of the civilian population of the city were raped and murdered whilst their property was looted. Despite the threat of another excommunication, the Crusaders destroyed, defiled and looted the city’s churches. Some of the loot taken by the Crusaders can still be seen today: the famous Horses of Saint Marks statues in Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice, were looted during the Crusader sack of Constantinople.
You would think that this disgraceful disaster would have discredited the whole notion of crusading and brought the whole enterprise crashing down on itself. If you genuinely believe this then you would be wrong. Instead, it legitimised the idea that crusading did not have to be focused on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. From this point forth any enemy of the Catholic Church was fair game.
The Fourth Crusade essentially doomed the Byzantine Empire, which never fully recovered from the sacking of its capital city in 1204. Constantinople was a shadow of its former glorious self and was conquered by the Ottoman Turks less than 250 years later in 1453.
The Remaining Crusades
The Fourth Crusade had set the benchmark for terrible crusading. The speed at which these guys totally gave up their divine mission to save Jerusalem in order to sack fellow Christian cities speaks volumes about what the crusades had degenerated into and what they really meant to some of the Crusaders. From this point onwards the crusades were to delve even further into protracted and ineffective belligerence.
The Fifth Crusade (1217 – 1221) was a spectacular disaster to retake Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land by first conquering the powerful Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt. Pope Innocent III and his successor Honorius III organised the crusader army to attack Jerusalem which led to an embarrassing humiliation, leaving the city in Muslim hands. A later expedition, aided by Islamic allies from the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm, set out to capture the Egyptian port city of Damietta. From here the Crusaders marched south towards Cairo but were forced to retreat after dwindling supplies and a night-time battle resulted in a great number of losses.
Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, had greater success in the Sixth Crusade (1228 – 1229) which can scarcely be called a “Crusade” in the traditional sense. Nearly no actual fighting occurred during this crusade which was called and waged by Frederick himself. Jerusalem was simply negotiated into Christian hands, where it remained (mostly) until 1244.
King Louis IX of France launched the Seventh Crusade (1248 – 1254). His troops were defeated, and Louis was captured and ransomed back for 800,000 gold bezants. The Eighth Crusade (1270) was an even bigger disaster after King Louis (yeah, same guy) died of dysentery shortly after arriving on the shores of Tunisia and his disease-ridden army dispersed back to Europe shortly after. The Ninth Crusade (1271 – 1272), led by Prince Edward of England, the future King Edward I, was somewhat of an extension of the previous Crusade and the final Crusade to reach the Holy Land before the fall of Christian-held Acre in 1291 brought an end to the permanent crusader presence in the region. Arguably, by this time the “Crusading Spirit” was nearly non-existent anyway after two centuries of religious warfare.
It is evident that after the Third Crusade these affairs got rapidly less noble and less religiously justifiable. Each Crusade was theoretically called in defence of the Cross but the most they ever did was defend some territory that happened to be owned by Christians during the First and Second Crusades. After those wars the Crusaders all developed an unhealthy obsession with the city of Jerusalem. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Christians, Muslims and Jews died in two centuries of warfare for a whole lot of nothing.
Ultimately, the Crusades were a total failure at establishing Christian kingdoms in the Holy Land on a long-term basis and with the emergence of the Ottoman Turks in the early fourteenth century, the region remained solidly in Muslim hands.
Like them or hate them, the crusading wars were a mess from start to finish, plagued with political in-fighting on all sides. Unarguably, they did far more harm than good – even if they were coming from a place of good intentions and good faith. It needs to be remembered that throughout history religion has motivated and influenced many events, but the participants who carry out these events are always human and it is human nature to compromise one’s religious beliefs for more human-scale motivations like money, land and power. Christianity itself is not inherently bad; but it is susceptible to twists from some very human factors. Islam and Judaism have engaged in similar things on occasion: it is hardly a reason to condemn an entire religion.
Additionally, unlike popular contemporary beliefs, the crusades did not open lines of communication between the Christian and Islamic worlds because those channels were already active. It is generally accepted by most historians that the crusades did not drag Europe kicking and screaming out of the Middle Ages through contact with the superior intellectual accomplishments of the Islamic world. The truth is that the crusades were, in fact, a significant drain on Europe’s resources for a couple of centuries.
The reason that the crusades matter today is because they remind us that the medieval world was profoundly different from our own. The men, women and children who took up the cross believed in the religious significance of their work in a way that few of us could scarce even conceive of today. When we focus so much on the heroic narrative, the anti-imperial narrative, or the political in-fighting, we tend to lose sight of what the crusades must have meant to the people who lived and breathed it: how that journey from pilgrimage to holy war must have transformed both their faith and their lives.
The Rest is History
Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:
- The Wise Man’s Journey
- The Agricultural Revolution
- Early Settlement
- The Indus Valley Civilisation
- Ancient Egypt
- West Vs East
- Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
- Ancient China
- Alexander…the Great?
- The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
- The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
- The Covenant & the Messiah
- Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
- The Rise of Islam
- The Dark Ages