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Article Info:
published: 1/31/05
updated: 5/13/13

History of the Crusades



What were the Crusades?

Christian persecution

In Christianity, the Crusades were expeditions of Christian Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries for the recovery of the Holy Land. They are a part of the thousand years' conflict between Christianity and Islam; yet they constitute in themselves a complete phase of historical development.

They came at a time when the wave of Islamic conquest had been at a standstill for more than four hundred years, and the old fanatic zeal of Islam had given way to the pursuit of worldly interests and the fostering of that high culture which still constitutes its title to historic fame.

In Christian Europe, on the contrary, religious feeling had been gaining in strength. There was a movement of revulsion from earthly interests, even of actual hatred for them, and a passionate longing for the felicities of another world and for a more intimate union with God. In this spirit of piety which strove to attain material vision of the Deity must be sought the true causes of the Crusades.

An age which laid so much stress on sacred relics would as a matter of course be extraordinarily susceptible to the influence of the greatest of all relics, the Holy Land. The many pilgrims of the eleventh century may scarcely be regarded as precursors of the Crusades; yet the motives that animated them throw light upon the character of the later and greater movement. Had not thousands of people experienced the yearning for the heavenly Jerusalem, statecraft would not have found it possible at a later date to enlist great hosts for the recovery of the earthly capital.


The First Crusade, 1096-99

As early as 1074, when Asia Minor passed into the hands of the Seljuk Turks, Pope Gregory VII had projected a war against the infidels, having also for its object reunion with the Greek Church. The plan was thrust into the background by the conflict with the emperor Henry IV. Pope Urban II (1088-99), who next took up the idea, was animated not so much by the political considerations of Gregory as by actual religious impulse. From the Church should come the impelling force; on the secular powers rested the actual execution of the plan. Before this, Norman knights had engaged in conflict with the infidel, and the conception of a crusade against the Saracen was therefore no absolute novelty to the nations of the West.

The Byzantine emperor Alexius I was quite aware of this when he turned to Urban for aid against the Turks in 1094, and met with a ready response from the general religious enthusiasm, from the ambitions of the Church, and from the lust for adventure and conquest. When the Greek ambassadors arrived Urban was preparing for the Council of Clermont; and there before great throngs the pope first preached the crusade, November 26, 1095, in words which have not come down, but which stirred the mighty multitudes to frenzied enthusiasm.

The number of those who assumed the crusader's cross increased daily, and the movement, soon passing beyond papal restraint, seized upon the lower classes. The peasant exchanged his plow for arms and was joined by the dissatisfied, the oppressed, and the outcast; members of the lower clergy, runaway monks, women, children gave to this advance-guard of the crusading army the character of a mob, recognizing no leadership but that of God.

This undercurrent of opposition to the pope gave rise to the legend, which is still current, that not Urban, but Peter the Hermit (Peter of Amiens) was the true representative of the crusading idea. Peter was one of the leaders of the fanatical bands, whose contribution to the enterprise was a story of an alleged personal appearance of Jesus, giving him commission to acquaint Christendom with the sad condition of the Holy Land. After the wildest excesses, in which the Jews appear as the principal sufferers at their hands, these tumultuous hosts found a pitiful end in Hungary and beyond the Bosporus.


Route of the First Crusade
(click to enlarge)

The real crusading armies set out in 1096. They comprised the men of Lorraine under the brothers Godfrey, Eustace, and Baldwin of Bouillon; northern French under Robert of Normandy; Provencals under Raymond of Toulouse; and Normans of Italy under Bohemund and Tancred. The Christian cause suffered from dissensions among the leaders, not all of whom resembled Godfrey of Bouillon in his freedom from worldly motives, and it had to contend against the machinations of Alexius I, who was roused to a sense of danger to his realm by the presence of the Western armies.

Nicaea was taken, the Sultan of Iconium was defeated at Dorylaeum, and on June 3, 1098, Antioch was captured and on June 28 was successfully defended against the Sultan of Mosul; on July 15, 1099, Jerusalem was taken, and Godfrey of Bouillon was made Protector of the Holy Sepulcher. He died in July, 1100, and under his successors, Baldwin I (d. 1118), Baldwin II (d. 1131), and Fulk (d. 1143), the boundaries of the kingdom were extended through successful warfare. The kingdom drew strength from the influx of new crusading forces, from the presence of the Italian merchants who established themselves in the Syrian ports, and from the religious and military orders of the Templars and the Knights of St. John.

But prosperity led to a weakening of the military spirit, and internal strife crippled the resources of the kingdom. On Christmas day, 1144, the capture of the strong frontier fortress of Edessa by the Emir of Mosul inflicted a serious blow on the Christian power.

The Second and Third Crusades, 1147-49, 1189-92

The news of the fall of Edessa led to a second crusade (1147-49), headed by Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany. In spite of the lofty motives which animated the French king, the second crusade shows a waning of the spirit of enthusiasm which had brought about the first. The political danger involved in the triumph of the Mohammedan arms was a determining factor in the departure of the crusading armies, and Bernard of Clairvaux, the great preacher of this crusade, found it expedient to dwell upon the taking of the cross as a potent means in gaining absolution for sin and attaining grace.


Illuminated Manuscript of Second Crusade
(National Library of France)

Lack of harmony between the royal leaders and the treacherous policy of the Byzantines led to irremediable disaster. The German army was almost totally destroyed in Asia Minor during the winter of 1147-48, and the other crusading host succumbed to defeat and the climate in the summer of 1148. Baldwin III by his unwise seizure of Ascalon in 1153 brought Egypt into the sphere of conflict and thus prepared the way for the fall of Jerusalem. Egypt after 1169 was ruled by the powerful Seljuks, whose great champion Saladin made it the object of his life to drive the Christian power from Palestine. The war was carried on in a half-hearted manner by the Christian princes. On July 4, 1187, Saladin won the battle of Hattin, and on Oct. 2 the Holy City surrendered. The Christian power was restricted to Antioch, Tripoli, Tyre, and Margat.

In the third crusade (1189-92), to which the fall of Jerusalem gave occasion, Richard I of England, Philip Augustus of France, and Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, participated. The German emperor was drowned at Salef in June 1190; Acre was taken by Richard and Philip, but the two kings quarreled and Philip retired; and Richard left Palestine in 1192, after securing by treaty with Sadadin the right for pilgrims to visit the Holy Sepulcher in small bands and unarmed.

The Fourth Crusade, 1202-04

The vital crusading spirit was now dead, and the succeeding crusades are to be explained rather as arising from the efforts of the papacy in its struggle against the secular power, to divert the military energies of the European nations toward Syria. A systematic agitation was carried on, and in 1201 a large army was collected which it was planned to transport on Venetian vessels to Egypt. The Venetians under their astute doge, Enrico Dandolo, succeeded in turning the crusading movement to their own purposes. The crusaders threw themselves against the Byzantines, Constantinople was taken and sacked (1204), and the empire was apportioned between Venice and the Christian leaders. The Latin empire at Constantinople was established.

An outburst of the old enthusiasm led to the Children's Crusade of 1212, which Innocent III interpreted as a reproof from heaven to their unworthy elders. By processions, prayers, and preaching, the Church attempted to set another crusade on foot, and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) formulated a plan for the recovery of the Holy Land. A crusading force from Hungary, Austria, and Bavaria achieved a remarkable feat in the capture of Damietta in Egypt in 1219, but under the urgent insistence of the papal legate, Pelagius, they proceeded to a foolhardy attack on Cairo, and an inundation of the Nile compelled them to choose between surrender and destruction.

The Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Crusades, 1228-70

In 1228 Emperor Frederick II set sail from Brindisi for Syria, though laden with the papal excommunication. Through diplomacy he achieved unexpected success, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem being delivered to the Christians for a period of ten years. The papal interests represented by the Templars brought on a conflict with Egypt in 1243, and in the following year a Korasmian force summoned by the latter stormed Jerusalem. Europe's last efforts appear in the two unsuccessful crusades of Louis IX of France, against Cyprus, Egypt, and Syria in 1248-54 and against Tunis in 1270. With the fall of Antioch (1268), Tripoli (1289), and Acre (1291) the last traces of the Christian occupation of Syria disappeared.

Power of Papacy Increased, also Intolerance

First among the results of the Crusades is to be counted the great increase they brought about in the power of the Church and of the papacy. The achievements of the religious wars fell far behind expectations; but the idea became firmly fixed that the pope at the head of armed Christendom had effected the conquest of the Holy Sepulcher. It was he who gave the call to arms, who supplied the necessary means from the treasures of the Church, who showered on the warriors of the cross privileges and benedictions, and who led them on through his legates; and, though the actual work of battle fell to the secular princes, the latter were held firmly in the control of the hierarchy by their irrevocable crusader's vow. Through the instrumentality of his legates, who now became an important part in the ecclesiastical administration, the pope drew to himself increased authority within the Church.

A more material source of strength was the riches which inured to the Church as a result of the sacrifices of individuals in providing themselves with the means for making the crusade. Princes and knights sold or mortgaged their estates, and the Church was the readiest and unchallenged purchaser in the open market. The popes drew a special profit from this state of affairs, for, whereas during the twelfth century the bishops were accustomed to contribute out of their funds toward the cost of the military expeditions, after the Lateran Council of 1215 these bounties were claimed by Rome as the supreme leader of the holy war and became the basis of a regular tax that was enforced throughout Europe long after the fall of the last Christian citadel in the East.

Further, the crusades acted as a powerful incentive to the growth of the spirit of religious intolerance. From warfare against the non-believer, whether Mohammedan, Jew, or pagan, it was not a far step to war against the heretic. Here, too, Innocent III. appears as an epoch-maker when he ventured to turn the secular arm against the internal enemies of the Church and to preach a crusade of extermination against the Albigenses of southern France. The inquisition with all its horrors could never have taken such deep root but for the awakening of religious passions which marked the Crusades.

As an offset it can hardly be maintained that European knowledge profited by the wars with the Mohammedans. The introduction of the study of Aristotle in the West is to be ascribed rather to the friendly relations which prevailed between Christians and Saracens in Spain and Sicily. Nor is it absolutely certain that Western art was materially enriched by contact with Byzantium and Syria; the numerous objets d'art brought back as booty from the East did no more than influence the development of a decorative art by supplying models for imitation.

Devotions Stimulated, Absolution Extended

On the other hand, it would be impossible to overestimate the stimulating effect of the Crusades on the spirit of devotion in Christian Europe. In the papal emissaries entrusted with the preaching of the crusade the first popular preachers of the Middle Ages are met with. The clerics left their churches and addressed the multitudes in the field and public squares; to them in large measure may be traced the fervent, imaginative eloquence of the later mendicant monks.

The questionable practise of searching out localities supposedly connected with sacred tradition and the establishment therein of ceremonies endowed with peculiar efficacies now arises. The period is one of tradition-making, which up to the present day has plunged the geography of Palestine into confusion. The pilgrim who after the fall of Acre was shut off from the greatest shrine of Christian worship turned to the sacred places of the West or of his own land, and the creation of such centers and objects of devotion became an important function of the Church.

The worship of relics extended enormously and the trade in holy remains was carried on in all conceivable forms and not without the grossest absurdities or deceptions. The body of legend increased and the Virgin became an especially favorite subject of presentation in narrative and art. It would also seem that the great importance of the rosary, which before this period appears prominently only in isolated instances, is to be regarded as dating from the thirteenth century, when it developed under the influence of the similar feature of Mohammedan worship known as tasbih.

Of portentous importance was the effect wrought by the Crusades on the system of absolution. Originally immunity from the penalties of transgression was granted only to those who assumed the cross out of purely religious motives; but as early as Celestine III. (d. 1198) the mere contribution of money toward an expedition against the infidel was rewarded with at least partial remission, while Innocent III. granted complete remission to one who sent a substitute to the field. And inasmuch as one might be absolved from his crusader's vow on the payment of a sum of money, and absolution eventually was offered for such minor acts of piety as the mere listening to an exhortation to take the cross, it is evident that wide opportunities, indeed, were offered for escape from the penalties of sin.

The Renaissance and Reformation

The Crusades were not without effect on the Renaissance and the Reformation. Friendly intercourse with the Mohammedan world brought Europe into contact with accomplishments and virtues which were felt to be lacking at home. Men became aware of a moral system independent of Christianity that was nevertheless worthy of respect. Theological disputations between Christian and Mohammedan revealed the fact that the Catholic dogma was not invulnerable. From the attention to the hitherto unsuspected merits of an opponent it was not a far step to a critical examination of one's own condition. In Germany suspicion of the motives of the Church in urging the wars against the Mohammedans and a reluctance to contribute toward the realization of the plans formulated by an ambitious papacy and carried on by self seeking warriors became manifest.

Thus the Church, which had made itself the leader of the Crusades, came to suffer the consequences of their ill success. Faith in papal absolutism waned; and a new religious spirit appeared, first in the sectaries (Cathari and Albigenses), and later in the Reformation. This spirit was fostered by the inspiration of that higher culture of which Frederick II. is the preeminent type, by the development of the sciences, and by the growth of commerce with the East, which enriched Europe and turned the attention of men from purely religious to material and cultural interests in the movement known as the Renaissance.

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