Crusades: Christian Perspective

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Crusades were military expeditions against various enemies of the church; the term refers particularly to the medieval campaigns aimed at liberating the Holy Land from the Muslims. The word crusade (Span., cruzada; Fr., croisade ) derives from the Latin crux (cross); the Latin term cruciata does not occur before the thirteenth century. It recalls the ceremony of "taking the cross" (Mt. 10:38), the public act of committing oneself to participate in a crusade. Crusaders wore a red cloth cross sewn to their cloaks as a sign of their status. In modern times the word crusade is used metaphorically to designate evangelistic efforts at promoting all kinds of religious or moral causes.

Roots and Causes

While the roots of the movement were complex, a major religious impulse came with the fusion of pilgrimage and holy war. The Crusades continued the old tradition of pilgrimage to the Holy Land that was often undertaken in fulfillment of a vow or as a penance; its earlier designations were via, iter, or peregrinatio. Attractive for pilgrims were not only the holy places themselves but their relics, above all the Holy Sepulcher, to which the emperor Heraclius had restored the True Cross in 627 ce. The finding of the Holy Lance at Antioch (June 1098) revitalized the First Crusade. In the Christian terra sancta mythology the name of Jerusalem ("vision of peace") evoked the image of the heavenly city, the goal of the Christian life (cf. Gal. 4:26, Heb. 12:22, Rv. 21:1027). As "navel of the world" Jerusalem also figured in apocalyptic expectation; according to the Tiburtine Sibyl, the last battles would be fought and the last emperor hand over his rule to Christ in Jerusalem.

During the twelfth century armed pilgrimages began to be regarded as just wars fought in defense of the Holy Land against its illegitimate occupation by the Muslim infidel. The notion of a just war as revenge for an injury done to Christ had been invoked in the fight against Muslims in Spain and Sicily and, even earlier, in the Carolingian expeditions against pagans and Saracens. In 878, Pope John VIII offered spiritual incentives to those who would arm themselves against his foes in Italy. Gregory VII (10731085) envisaged a militia Christi for the fight against all enemies of God and thought already of sending an army to the East. An additional factor was the expectation of religious benefits. In the popular perception, the Crusade indulgence offered nothing less than full remission of sins and a sure promise of heaven. In a feudal society of warriors, crusading for God's sake under the banner of Saint Michael ranked as the ultimate fulfillment of the ideal of Christian knighthood.

Among the political causes of the Crusades, the appeals for help from the Byzantine emperors were prominent. The year 1071 saw the defeat of the Byzantine army at Manzikert in Asia Minor. Jerusalem fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1077. There is no clear evidence that these events led to increased harassment of Christian pilgrims. Nevertheless, they caused great alarm and spurred papal offers of assistance. Moreover, in dealing with the fighting spirit of the aristocracy, reform movements such as the Cluniac and the Gregorian were promoting the "Peace of God" (protection of unarmed persons) and the "Truce of God" (treuga Dei, suspension of all fighting during specified times). In this situation, participation in holy warfare provided an outlet for the martial vigor of Christian knights.


Any attempt at systematizing the Crusades remains arbitrary. Nevertheless, for clarity's sake, we shall follow the customary numbering of the main expeditions.

First Crusade (10961099)

Urban II's call for participation in an expedition to the East at the Council of Clermont on November 27, 1095, met with an enthusiastic response. He himself declared the acclamation "God wills it!" to be the divinely inspired battle cry for the Crusaders. Thousands took the cross, especially French, Norman, and Flemish knights. Several bands of badly armed pilgrims from France and Germany, most of them poor and inexperienced, set out for Constantinople even before the army gathered. Some started by massacring Jews on their way through Germany. Many died in Hungary, and the remnants perished in Anatolia. The main force, under the papal legate Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy and an illustrious baronial leadership (including Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin II of Flanders, Raymond IV of Toulouse, Robert II of Normandy, and Bohemond I of Taranto), assembled at Constantinople (December 1096 to May 1097) and set out on a long, arduous march through Asia Minor. After costly victories at Nicaea and Dorylaeum (JuneJuly 1097) and enormous hardships, the Crusaders captured Antioch (June 3, 1098) and finally Jerusalem (July 15, 1099), consolidating their victory by the defeat of a Fatimid army at Ascalon (August 12, 1099). A side expedition under Baldwin had already taken Edessa to the north (February 6, 1098). Only Nicaea was returned to the Byzantine emperor, and four Crusader states were organized along the Syro-Palestinian coast: the counties of Edessa and Tripoli, the principality of Antioch, and the kingdom of Jerusalem. Measured against the original goal, the First Crusade was the only successful one. Its territorial gains, protected by inland ridges and a system of fortresses along the coast, formed the basis that future Crusades sought to defend against mounting Muslim pressure. Constant quarrels among the leaders and rival interests of the major European powers, however, prevented any effective cooperation and success.

Second Crusade (11471149)

The preaching of the Second Crusade had its immediate cause in the loss of Edessa to the Muslims of Syria (1144). Moved by the preaching of Bernard of Clairvaux, Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany led separate armies through Asia Minor. The losses suffered by the troops were disheartening. Furthermore, rather than aiming at Edessa, the remnant joined the Palestinian knights in an unsuccessful siege of Damascus (July 1148), which had been at peace with the kingdom of Jerusalem. This diversion worsened the plight of Edessa, Antioch, and Tripoli. Even at home the crusade was soon recognized as a disaster.

Third Crusade (11891192)

At the initiative of the archbishop of Tyre, the Third Crusade responded to the defeat of the Palestinian knights at iīn in Galilee (July 4, 1187) and the resulting loss of Jerusalem to the sultan, Saladin. The leadership included Frederick I Barbarossa, Philip II Augustus of France, and Richard I ("the Lionhearted") of England. But Frederick accidentally drowned during the march, and the crusading effort disintegrated through attrition, quarreling, and lack of cooperation. Only Acre was recaptured (July 1191) and some ports secured, mainly through the initiative of Richard, who also took Cyprus from the Byzantines and finally negotiated a three-year truce with Saladin (September 1192).

Fourth Crusade (12021204)

Pope Innocent III (11981216) made the reorganization of the crusade under papal auspices one of the priorities of his pontificate. A first appeal went out on August 15, 1198. The response was slow, and the fervor aroused by the preaching of Fulk of Neuilly did not reach beyond France and Italy. The leaders contracted for transportation with the doge of Venice, Dandolo, but lack of funds forced a diversion from the original plan to attack the Muslims in Egypt. At the request of the Venetians, the Crusaders first attacked the Christian city of Zara in Dalmatia (November 1202) and then sailed on to Constantinople, where they hoped to enthrone Alexios, an exiled Byzantine pretender to the crown, and to receive the material assistance they needed. When these plans failed, the Crusaders laid siege to the city and finally stormed it (April 12, 1204). Byzantium was looted for its treasure of relics, art, and gold, and was made the residence of a Latin emperor, with Baldwin IX of Flanders as the first incumbent. A Byzantine army recaptured the city almost casually in 1261.

The Fourth Crusade was followed by the legendary Children's Crusade of 1212. A group consisting mostly of young people under the leadership of a boy named Nicholas tried to cross the Alps and find passage to the Holy Land. All trace of them was lost even before they reached the Mediterranean ports. Crusade preaching, religious fervor, and respect for children as instruments of God's power contributed to the phenomenon. Later sources confuse this crusade with a French movement led by a shepherd boy, Stephen of Cloyes, who wanted to deliver a heavenly letter to the king.

Fifth Crusade (12171221)

In connection with his call for the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, Innocent III tried to stir up new interest in the crusade. In the Levant, Acre had become the center of Christian activity. From there an expedition under baronial and clerical leadership (Cardinal Pelagius) attempted to strike at the heart of Ayyubid power in Egypt (May 1218). The harbor city of Damietta was forced to surrender (November 5, 1219), but further hopes were dashed by the defeat at al-Mansūra on the way to Cairo (July 24, 1221). A stunning novelty was the expedition of Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (the so-called Sixth Crusade, 12281229). Frederick sailed to Cyprus and Acre (June 1228), secretly negotiated a ten-year truce that included the return of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Lydda to the Christians, and crowned himself king of Jerusalem (March 18, 1229), although he had been excommunicated by Gregory IX for his failure to act on a Crusade vow earlier. The Holy City was retaken by Muslim allies in 1244 after an expedition of Count Thibaut IV of Champagne had failed to secure the diplomatic gain (12391240).

Seventh and Eighth Crusades

Two crusades of the thirteenth century are connected with the name of Louis IX (Saint Louis) of France. In fulfillment of a vow, Louis sailed to Cyprus with a splendid host of fifteen thousand men and attacked Egypt (Seventh Crusade, 12481254). Damietta was occupied again (June 1249) but had to be returned together with a huge ransom when the king and his army were routed and taken captive on their slow march south (April 6, 1250). Louis took up residence in Acre for four years, attempting to strengthen the Crusader states by, for example, working toward an alliance with the Mongol khan. Another expedition against the sultan of Tunis (Eighth Crusade, 12701272) also ended in failure. The king died in North Africa (August 25, 1270), and the Muslims succeeded in buying off the Crusaders. In the meantime, all of Palestine as well as Antioch was lost to the Mamluk sultan, Baybars. The last Christian bastion on the Syrian coast, Acre, was stormed by the sultan in 1291.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw several papal attempts to revive the crusade or support expeditions to the East. In 1365, King Peter I of Cyprus captured Alexandria; this victory was widely hailed but inconsequential. Soon the fight against the Ottoman Turks turned into a defense of Christian lands, especially after Muslim victories over the Serbs, the Hungarians (Nicopolis, 1396), and a last Crusader army under John Hunyadi and Julian Cardinal Cesarini (Varna, 1444). The fall of Constantinople in May 1453 led to a serious initiative on the part of Pius II, who wished to go on the crusade in person. He died on the way to joining the fleet at Ancona (July 1464).

Other Crusades

During the medieval period crusades were also used against internal foes in the West. The granting of Crusade indulgences for the fight against the Moors in Spain beginning with Alexander II (1072) and a crusade to convert the Slavic Wends in northern Germany (1147) set the precedent. These actions were followed by savage crusades against Albigensian heretics in southern France (12091229), northern German peasants (12321234), and the Hussites (14211435), by wars of conversion against the pagan Prussians in the Baltic region (after 1236), and similar expeditions. A different development came with the "political" crusades to protect the papal lands in Italy against the Hohenstaufens. Gregory IX proclaimed the crusade against Frederick II in 1240; Innocent IV followed in 1245; and the French Angevins took Sicily (12611264) with full Crusaders' privileges granted by Urban IV.


From the beginning, the movement depended on the initiative of the papacy; as a result, the latter's claims to universal leadership were strengthened. Urban II preached the crusade himself, as did other popes. Generally, however, this task was delegated to bishops, papal legates, and specially commissioned Crusade preachers. Few examples of this preaching are known. We have, however, a manual for Crusade preachers written around 1250 by the Dominican master general, Humbert of Romans. A crusade was announced through papal bulls, the first of these having been issued by Eugenius III (December 1, 1145). They normally included exhortation, narration (of the situation in the East), and the enumeration of privileges. The last point was of particular importance. Canon law specified the Crusader's rewards: plenary indulgence, legal advantages such as protection of family and property and the right to be judged in ecclesiastical courts, and financial incentives like exemption from certain taxes and interest payments or the right to sell and mortgage property. Violations were subject to severe punishment, including excommunication, which also applied to those who failed to act on a crusading vow.

Originally, participants expected to pay their own way and to provision their vassals. As enthusiasm faded, the financing of a crusade became more complicated. Apart from using current income, popes from the mid-twelfth century on authorized special Crusade taxes of 1 to 10 percent on ecclesiastical income for up to five years; taxing rights or a share of the ecclesiastical tithe could be granted also to secular leaders. In 1187, Pope Gregory VIII began granting Crusade indulgences for persons assisting the effort at home, who soon came to include the wives of Crusaders.

A consequence of the growing financial involvement of the popes was the wish to have more direct control of the goals and operations. While Urban II still discouraged participation of the clergy, in practice the situation soon changed. Many clerics joined the expeditions, and papal legates regularly accompanied the armies. Conflicts over authority and leadership were inevitable. Yet the popes had to be flexible. No crusade could be conducted without popular support. The early enthusiasm probably was the expression of a genuine religious sentiment, often in response to charismatic preachers such as Peter of Amiens, Bernard of Clairvaux, Fulk of Neuilly, and Jacques of Vitry. But after the initial success and the later shock over the failure of the Second Crusade, a revival of the original zeal became more difficult despite increased incentives and propaganda efforts. From the middle of the twelfth century on, critical voices were heard, including imperial publicists, Rutebeuf, Roger Bacon, and William of Tripoli. Papal opinion polls (Gregory X, 1272; Nicholas IV, 1292) elicited many answers. As in the isolated event of Francis of Assisi's visit to Sultan al-Kamīl during the Fifth Crusade (spring and summer 1219), the need for a fundamental shift from military intervention to peaceful mission efforts was often stressed, leading to missionary initiatives in the late Middle Ages, especially from the mendicant orders.


The results of the Crusades are difficult to assess. In terms of religion, the failures nourished doubts about God's will, church authority, and the role of the papacy. Religious fervor yielded to apathy, cynicism, and legalism. On the other hand, the Crusades stimulated religious enthusiasm on a large scale and gave Christendom a unifying cause that lasted for centuries. They inspired a great literature of tracts, chronicles, letters, heroic tales, and poetry, not only in Latin but in the vernaculars. Ignorance of Islam was replaced by a measure of knowledge, respect, and occasionally tolerance. An emphasis on informed apologetics (for instance those of Thomas Aquinas and Ramón Lull) and on Eastern languages (canon 11 of the Council of Vienne, 1311) as a prerequisite for mission was characteristic of the later Middle Ages.

Politically, the Crusades brought few lasting changes. The Crusader states and the Latin empire remained episodes. Their precarious status forced new diplomatic contacts with Eastern powers but also strengthened the Muslim conviction that holy war (jihād) could be carried farther west. In this sense the Crusades led directly to the Turkish wars of later centuries, during which Ottoman expansion threatened even central Europe.

The effect of the Crusades on relations with Byzantium was primarily negative. The Crusades needed Byzantine support as much as Byzantium needed Western armies. But what started as an effort to help Eastern Christians ended in mutual mistrust and enmity (for example, the Crusades against the Byzantines in 1237, 1261, and 1282). The shrewd moves of Byzantine diplomacy created the image of the "treacherous Greeks" among Crusaders, while the sack of Constantinople left the indelible impression of Western barbarity on the Greek mind. Thus, the "unions" of Eastern churches with the West (at the councils of Lyons, 1274, and Florence, 1439) had no support at home.

One novelty with an impact on European politics was the military orders founded in the East. The Templars' financial deals with the French crown led to their ruthless suppression (13071312); the Hospitalers' odyssey took them to the island of Rhodes (13091322) and to Malta (after 1530). The Teutonic Knights found a new task in the Baltic states, and several chivalrous orders in Spain and Portugal were to influence Iberian politics for centuries.

The Crusades imposed huge burdens on clergy and laity; at times the papacy was unable to support any other cause. Yet they also furthered the growth of a money economy, banking, and new methods of taxation. The widening of the geographic horizon prepared Europe for the age of discovery. Urban culture, especially in Italian city-states such as Genoa, Pisa, and Venice, received strong impulses through trade with the East. In the West, Islamic science, philosophy, and medicine deeply influenced intellectual life.


Many general bibliographies on the Middle Ages feature sections on the Crusades. Two specialized bibliographies provide a thorough introduction to sources and literature: A. S. Atiya's The Crusade: Historiography and Bibliography (1962; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1976) and Hans Eberhard Mayer's Bibliographie zur Geschichte der Kreuzzüge (Hannover, 1960) with its supplement, Literaturberichte über Neuerscheinungen zur ausserdeutschen Geschichte und zu den Kreuzzügen, "Historische Zeitschrift, Sonderheft," vol. 3 (Munich, 1969).

The most comprehensive treatment of the Crusades in English is found in the excellent volumes of A History of the Crusades, under the general editorship of Kenneth M. Setton, with Marshall W. Baldwin, Robert Wolff, and especially Harry W. Hazard as editors (vols. 12, Philadelphia, 19551962; new edition and continuation, vols. 15, Madison, Wis., 19691984). Steven Runciman's A History of the Crusades, 3 vols. (Cambridge, 19511954), presents another comprehensive, though somewhat idiosyncratic, approach. The best short introduction is Hans Eberhard Mayer's The Crusades (Oxford, 1972).

Carl Erdmann's classic book on the roots of the movement is now available in English: The Origin of the Idea of Crusade (Princeton, 1977). Still the most thorough investigation of the religious aspects is Paul Alphandéry's La Chrétienté et l'idée de croisade, 2 vols. (Paris, 19541959). Benjamin Z. Kedar's Crusade and Mission: European Approaches toward the Muslims (Princeton, 1984) stresses the interaction of the two main strategies toward Islam.

Much recent attention has focused on canonical and legal aspects. Major studies are James A. Brundage's Medieval Canon Law and the Crusader (Madison, Wis., 1969); Maureen Purcell's Papal Crusading Policy, Studies in the History of Christian Thought, no. 11 (Leiden, 1975); and Joshua Prawer's Crusader Institutions (Oxford, 1980). A standard work on critical voices is Palmer A. Throop's Criticism of the Crusade: A Study of Public Opinion and Crusade Propaganda (1940; reprint, Philadelphia, 1975).

New Sources

Andrea, Alfred J. The Encyclopedia of the Crusades. Westport, Conn., 2003.

Brundage, James A. The Crusades, Holy War, and Canon Law. Aldershot, U.K., 1991.

Kedar, Benjamin Z. Crusade and Mission: European Approaches toward the Muslims. Princeton, N.J., 1984.

Madden, Thomas F., ed. The Crusades: The Essential Readings. Oxford, and Malden, Mass., 2002.

Mastnak, Tomaz. Crusading Peace: Christendom, the Muslim World, and Western Political Order. Berkeley, Calif., 2002.

Riley-Smith, Jonathan, ed. The Oxford History of the Crusades. Oxford, 2002.

Slack, Corliss Konwiser, compiler. English translations by Hugh Bernard Feiss. The Crusade. Charters, 11381270. Tempe, Ariz., 2001.

Karlfried Froehlich (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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