Origins of the Crusades

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Origins of the Crusades

The Crusades did not happen spontaneously or as a result of a particular event. A number of factors came together to create the political, social, religious, and economic environment that enabled the "crusading spirit" to take root and spread throughout Europe. Although enthusiasm for crusading periodically cooled, it also revived in response to events in the Middle East.

The arrival of the Seljuk Turks

The sands of the Middle East had shifted many times throughout the first thousand years of the Christian era. Jerusalem, the ancient center of Judaism, fell under the control of the pagan (one who worships many gods) Roman Empire and then became a Christian city under the Roman emperor Constantine and his successors. After the breakup of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the city was controlled by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Empire. Then it fell to the Muslims in the seventh century, and in the centuries that followed it was ruled by the Muslim dynasty of Egypt (see "The Spread of Islam" in Chapter 1).

The sands were destined to shift once again with the arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century. The Byzantines gave the name "Turk" to the people who occupied a large area in central Asia. The Turks were primarily a nomadic people (that is, they moved about rather than settling in one place) who belonged to any one of a number of tribes or clans. In the tenth century they converted to the Islamic faith and became part of the Muslim empire.

One of these nomadic clans, the Seljuks, was large and powerful. The Seljuks proved to be ungovernable—that is, they could not be controlled—and they began to overrun the Middle East. In 1055 they seized Baghdad, the capital of modern-day Iraq but at that time in the nation of Persia. They then gained power over Syria and the rest of Persia. They also launched an invasion of the Byzantine nation of Armenia, located east of Turkey and north of modern-day Iran. Finally, in 1071, a little more than two decades before the start of the Crusades, they overthrew the Fatimids, the name of the Egyptian Muslim dynasty that ruled Jerusalem. Once again, control of the Holy Land was in different hands.

The Byzantine emperor, Romanus IV Diogenes, was determined to turn back the Seljuk threat to the shrinking Byzantine Empire. He assembled an army, which met the Seljuks near the city of Manzikert in Armenia in 1071. The Seljuks were tough, experienced warriors, and although they were badly outnumbered, they soundly defeated the Byzantines and captured the emperor.

This event was a turning point. After the historic Battle of Manzikert, the Byzantines were unable to stop the Seljuks, who continued to take lands belonging to the Byzantines in Asia Minor. (Asia Minor is the peninsula of land on the western edge of Asia, bounded on the north by the Black Sea, on the south by the Mediterranean Sea, and on the west by the Aegean Sea.) Of particular importance was the loss of key cities such as Antioch (the ancient capital of Syria but now part of Turkey) and Edessa (now the city of Urfa in Turkey). After centuries of stability and prosperity, the Byzantine Empire shrank to a much narrower area surrounding the city of Constantinople.

A cry for help

People in Europe were alarmed by these developments for two reasons. First, they were worried that the Seljuk Turks would deny Christians access to Jerusalem, a holy city. At a time when Europeans identified so strongly with the church and believed that one way to win salvation in heaven was by making a pilgrimage (a journey to a sacred place) to the Holy Land, this was a troubling development (see Chapter 3 on pilgrimages to the Holy Land). They were partly correct. While the Seljuks did not officially cut off pilgrim traffic from the West, their presence made the journey far more difficult than it had been. Pilgrims passing through the region often needed armed escorts because of bandits. In nearly every small town along the way, the local ruler would demand money for safe passage. Pilgrims to the Holy Land returned to Europe with tales of great danger and enormous expense. Danger and expense had always been part of the penance, or atonement for sin, of a pilgrimage, but the Seljuks made matters worse.

Westerners were also concerned about the fate of the Byzantine Empire. They knew that if Constantinople fell to the Muslim Seljuks, the empire probably would collapse entirely. They wanted the empire to remain stable and strong, for it served as a buffer between the Muslim empire and the Christian countries of Europe. As things stood, Muslim invaders had already attacked Italy, France, and Spain. They had a toehold in Europe with a caliphate (an Islamic ruling power) in Córdoba, Spain. With no Byzantine Empire to hold the Muslims in check, Europe would face an even greater threat. Some historians believe that the Europeans were correct and that if they had not fought the Muslims during the Crusades, these invasions of Europe would have been more frequent and, in the end, more successful. Much more of Europe could have become part of the Muslim empire.

Furthermore, even though the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church had split, the Eastern Orthodox Church was still Christian, so western religious and political leaders did not want to see it fall to an unfriendly empire. As early as 1074 Pope Gregory VII, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, wanted to reunite the branches of the Christian church. He made plans to lead a Christian army to come to the aid of the East by driving the Seljuks out, but he never put the plan into effect. Gregory and his successors saw events in the East as a way perhaps to reunite the church or, at least, to force the Greek Orthodox Church to submit to Rome.

In 1081 the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire began to improve when a new emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, was crowned. Unlike some of his predecessors, Alexius was a competent ruler and a skillful military leader. Under his leadership, the Byzantines were able to stop the advance of the Seljuks. He knew, though, that he would never be able to drive them out entirely and reclaim Byzantine lands without help from the West. He had to enlarge his army, and he concluded that the only way he could do so was with mercenary soldiers, or hired troops, from the West. Alexius decided that his most promising course of action was to employ French knights to expand his own army, though he would take any help he could get.

Accordingly, Alexius wrote letters to lords and nobles in the West, asking for assistance. As a good politician, he knew that his appeal would be ignored if he based it entirely on a desire to regain his own empire. Instead, he appealed to western Europe's Christian feelings. He described Muslim violence against Eastern Christians. He painted a picture of Christians in the East needing to be delivered from the tyranny, or domination, of Muslim overlords. He argued that it was not acceptable that the holy places of the East should be in the hands of Muslims and Turks, who were not Christians and therefore were considered "infidels," or unbelievers. He raised the image of Muslims denying Christian pilgrims, whether from East or West, access to those holy places.

It is important to note, though, that much of what Alexius claimed was exaggerated, and often false. Moreover, the Muslims who he claimed were guilty of these "atrocities" (or evils) were the Seljuks, not the Egyptian Fatimids who had been in control of Jerusalem for centuries before the Seljuks arrived.

In February 1095 Pope Urban II (c. 1042–1099) was leading a church council in Piacenza, Italy. While he was in Piacenza, a group of diplomatic representatives (political ambassadors) from Constantinople arrived with a direct appeal for help from Alexius. Urban and the other church officials attending the council were deeply moved by the emperor's plea. Immediately after the council, Pope Urban began to make plans to come to the aid of the emperor. The result would be the First Crusade, which ended with the capture of Jerusalem by Christian forces in 1099 (see "The Sermon at Clermont" in Chapter 6.)

A Letter from Alexius

Here is an example of the letters Alexius wrote to the nobles of Europe, describing the evils that he claimed the Turks were committing. This is an excerpt from his letter to Count Robert of Flanders, quoted by Robert Payne in The Dream and the Tomb: A History of the Crusades:

O illustrious count and great consoler of the faith, I am writing in order to inform Your Prudence that the very saintly empire of Greek Christians is daily being persecuted by … the Turks.… The blood of Christians flows in unheard-of scenes of carnage [killing], amidst the most shameful insults.… I shall merely describe a very few of them.…

The enemy has the habit of circumcising [to cut off the foreskin of the penis] young Christians and Christian babies above the baptismal font [a vessel for holy water used at baptism]. In derision [disrespect] of Christ they let the blood flow into the font. Then they are forced to urinate in the font.… Those who refuse to do so are tortured and put to death. They carry off noble matrons [married women] and their daughters and abuse them like animals.

Other origins of the Crusades

These were the immediate events that led up to the Crusades. They explain the political situation in Europe and the East, but they fail to account fully for Europe's enthusiastic response to the pope. Throughout Europe, thousands of men willingly and eagerly "took up the cross" and joined the Crusades. The central question that historians ask about the Crusades is "why?" What were the motives of the Crusaders? Why did Europeans respond as keenly as they did? Can the Crusades be explained by social, economic, or religious factors?

Historians give varying answers to these questions, but all agree that the Crusaders had many motives, or driving forces. Many people genuinely believed that Jerusalem had to be liberated from the infidel and that access to the Holy Land for Christian pilgrims doing penance for their sins had to be maintained (see "Penance" in Chapter 3). Others could not pass up the pope's offer of an indulgence for going on a Crusade. According to church teaching, at death a person's soul first went to purgatory instead of heaven. Purgatory was a place of punishment for sins committed during a person's lifetime. The time spent in purgatory was a delay in joining God in heaven. An indulgence was a reduction in the length of time spent in purgatory. Indulgences could be earned by, for example, saying certain prayers or performing certain acts. The pope offered a "plenary" indulgence to Crusaders, meaning that they could bypass purgatory entirely and go straight to heaven.

Religious hysteria

In his essay "The Children's Crusade," the historian Norman P. Zacour argues that the Crusades were part of the religious hysteria that from time to time swept through Europe. Zacour reminds his readers that many Europeans in the Middle Ages (500–1500) lived lives that were utterly dreary. Life was insecure, violence was everywhere, and poverty was widespread. In such an environment, people often fell victim to religious hysteria, believing that if this world provided few comforts, the next one would do so. It is no surprise, then, that they responded to Crusade preaching with great enthusiasm. What emerged, according to Zacour, was a kind of mass religious hysteria, or frenzy. Without this hysteria, the Crusades might never have taken place. Two chief instances of this hysteria were the People's Crusade and the Children's Crusade.

The People's Crusade

The People's Crusade, sometimes called the Pauper's Crusade, was really the "First" Crusade, although it is not normally numbered as such. It was led by a wandering evangelist named Peter the Hermit. If the Crusades promised high adventure for noble knights fired with zeal, or enthusiasm, to carry out brave deeds, the People's Crusade was something different. As the historian Franklin Hamilton notes in his book The Crusades, "the grand drama of the Crusades opened with a touch of farce." The leading characters in this farce were Peter's ragtag army of commoners and peasants who were swept up in the hysteria of the First Crusade.

Peter's Crusaders were the first wave of Europeans to arrive in the East after Pope Urban's sermons preaching the Crusade. Peter was a small man who wore filthy clothes and went about barefoot. With a long, dark face, he was almost comical, and yet he had power over others. Wherever he went, he attracted hundreds of followers, and his army grew like a snowball as it rolled through France and Germany. But the people he drew to the cause were not knights; instead, they were a varied crowd of peasants, petty criminals, women, children, aged people, knights who had been disowned by their families, and ill people. Peter promised them something their feudal masters, those to whom they had previously pledged their service in return for protection, could not—salvation. They could leave their grim life and find the grace of God, perhaps even personal glory, fighting the infidel in the Holy Land. By the time Peter reached Cologne, Germany, as many as fifteen thousand people were already in his army.

The pope had announced that the First Crusade was to depart for the Middle East in August 1096, but Peter and his followers were impatient to go, so they set out from Germany in April. By this time the People's Crusade had grown even larger. The exact size is a matter of some debate, but estimates range from twenty thousand all the way up to three hundred thousand.

This first wave of Crusaders, often hungry and always badly disciplined, caused nothing but trouble as they traveled to the Holy Land through eastern Europe. They started a riot in Hungary and sacked, or destroyed, the city of Nish, in modern-day Bulgaria. Word of these outrages reached the Byzantine emperor. He sent an armed force to restrain them under the guise of "escorting" them to Constantinople. But fighting broke out between the Crusaders and their escort, and the Byzantines attacked. The People's Crusaders finally submitted, but not before as many as ten thousand had been either killed or taken into slavery. Still, the People's Crusade pressed on.

The disappointment of Alexius when these uncouth warriors began to arrive at the gates of Constantinople in July 1096 can only be imagined. They continued to cause trouble, robbing country estates and looting buildings. Alexius, frustrated and angry, settled them in August in a military camp across the Bosphorus Strait in Asia Minor and pleaded with them to wait to continue with the Crusade until trained men-at-arms arrived from Europe.

However, the People's Crusaders, fired with enthusiasm for their holy cause and always hungry, were not willing to wait. On October 21, 1096, Peter was away in Constantinople. In his absence, a large force of People's Crusaders set out to engage the Turks in battle. Leaving the women and children in camp, they marched straight into a Seljuk ambush. Virtually no one survived the assault. The Seljuks then stormed the camp, and five hours later the destruction of the People's Crusade was complete. A few thousand survivors were ferried across the Bosphorus to safety in Constantinople, but the People's Crusade had come to an abrupt and shameful end. When later Crusaders passed though the area, they reported encountering large hills of bones, all that remained of the People's Crusade.

The Children's Crusade

This type of mass religious hysteria did not end with the People's Crusade. Before the Fifth Crusade early in the thirteenth century, a curious instance of mass religious hysteria arose when the so-called Children's Crusade departed for the Holy Land.

In the early thirteenth century a new and larger class of poor was emerging. The population of Europe was increasing faster than the ability to feed it. Wage labor on farms was becoming more common, leading to unemployment in the winter. The burden of taxes on the poor and near-poor was becoming greater. More and more people were wandering the countryside in search of work and charity. These people often resented the church. They believed that God's people were the poor and dispossessed (homeless), not the wealthy and authoritarian church officials. In this climate, the legends of the Children's Crusade took root and flourished in the popular imagination.

By this time Jerusalem had been lost to the Muslims in 1187, just before the Third Crusade. The Third Crusade failed to win it back. The Fourth Crusade in 1198 went horribly off course and, rather than marching on Jerusalem, attacked the city of Constantinople (see "The Third Crusade" and "The Fourth Crusade" in Chapter 6). Given these failures, many Europeans thought that if armed knights fighting for the pope could not reclaim the Holy Land, perhaps the poor and the innocent could.

It is unclear how much of what is known about the Children's Crusade is true. But the legend is that in May 1212 King Philip of France was holding court when he was approached by a twelve-year-old shepherd boy named Stephen. Stephen was the bearer of an incredible tale. He held in his hand a letter that he said was given to him by Christ with instructions to deliver it to the king. The letter said that the king was to assemble a Crusade and march on the holy city of Jerusalem.

The king dismissed Stephen, but the boy was eager to free the Holy Land, so he traveled through France, preaching his Crusade. Everywhere he went he gathered followers, much as Peter the Hermit had done more than a century earlier. People saw him as a saint. By the time he reached Vendôme, France, up to thirty thousand Crusaders from all ranks of life had left their families and joined him. Not one of these Crusaders was over the age of twelve.

In June 1212 Stephen's army continued on to the port city of Marseilles, France. When they arrived at Marseilles, two merchants, named Hugh the Iron and William the Pig, agreed to transport the children to the Holy Land. A few days out at sea, a storm sank two of the ships, and all aboard were lost. The other five ships survived, but none of the children was ever heard from again.

Eighteen years later a priest who had accompanied the children returned from captivity in Egypt. Only then did Europe learn the fate of its children. After the storm, according to the priest, the surviving five ships, rather than sailing east to the Holy Land, had turned south to the North African country of Algeria. In Algeria the treacherous merchants sold the children into slavery.

Meanwhile, a second Children's Crusade, not knowing the fate of the first, was forming in 1212 in Germany, led by a boy named Nicholas. This group, which numbered around twenty thousand, crossed the Alps into Italy and the port city of Pisa. Many died of hunger and exposure along the way. At Pisa two ships left, carrying some of these young Crusaders to the Holy Land, but nothing was ever learned about their fate. A second group, led by Nicholas, made its way to Rome, where the pope greeted them, told them that they should take up the cross when they were older, and sent them home. Only a few ever made it back, and, again, nothing is known of the rest, including Nicholas. In Nicholas's town, parents who had lost their children turned on the boy's father and hanged him.

The rise of papal power

Another explanation for the Crusades focuses on the increase in the power of the pope, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Put simply, the Crusades were a way for popes to assert their authority not only over the church but over temporal (earthly) rulers, such as kings and emperors. In the late ninth and early tenth centuries, the papacy (the office of and institutions surrounding the pope) had been relatively weak, primarily because from 896 to 904, eight different popes reigned. None had a term that was long enough to allow him to expand his authority. Pope Gregory VII, who reigned from 1073 to 1086, was too preoccupied with reasserting the authority of the church in the West to respond to appeals from Constantinople for aid, but he kept alive the hope of reuniting the two branches of Christianity. It would be Pope Urban II who would act on those appeals and use the Crusades as a way to increase church power.

Pope Urban II was a French nobleman by birth, so the Crusades always had a French character and tended to be led by French noblemen. An exception would appear to be Richard I (1157–1199), the king of England, but even Richard, known by his French name Coeur de Lion, or the Lionheart, was more French than English. In the Middle East, Muslims referred to all Crusaders, whatever their national origin, as the Franj, or Franks. Thus, when the pope preached his first Crusade sermon at Clermont, he was speaking in French, primarily to French aristocrats.

At the time, Europe was still largely divided. Although the French king Charles Martel (c. 688–741) had resisted Muslim advances into the Frankish kingdom, and his grandson, Charlemagne (742–814), or Charles the Great, had taken major steps toward strengthening the Frankish empire, the history of Europe during this time was still chiefly the history of barons and nobles at war with one another. Urban, a practical, worldly man, wanted to put an end to this quarreling, unite the nations of Europe, ensure that the Muslims in Spain made no further advances, and strengthen the power of the papacy.

The Crusades were a way to accomplish these goals. The Crusades gave Europe a common purpose and sense of direction. They were a way to impose a kind of truce over Europe and redirect its energies into a holy war in the East. They would help reduce Europe's surplus population, not only through combat deaths but also through resettlement in the East, and they would give Europe's knightly class something to do.

The Crusades would also provide an outlet for the second (and later) sons of nobles and landowners. These sons often had few economic prospects of their own because of what was called "primogeniture." Under the system of primogeniture, the estates of nobles and landowners were kept intact, rather than being divided up, by passing wholly to the firstborn son when the landowner died. Many younger sons, especially those who did not want to take up the church as a profession, trained as knights, went on to become Crusaders to the Middle East, and gained estates of their own—for the pope promised that they could keep any territory they won during the Crusade. For the young sons of many French noblemen, this was a powerful and irresistible motive for becoming a Crusader. In areas of Europe where primogeniture was not yet widely practiced, the Crusades served to draw many sons and others who made claims on an estate, often leaving such estates in the hands of a single noble or landowner. Those nobles and landowners would encourage crusading as a way to keep control over their land.

The First Crusade provides a typical example of this desire for territory. As the Crusaders were on the march toward Jerusalem, quarrels began to erupt over the question of who would remain in charge of towns captured along the way. After initial successes at the cities of Nicaea and Dorylaeum (both in modern-day Turkey), two of the Frankish nobles leading the Crusade, Baldwin and Tancred, grew weary of fighting for the cause of the Byzantine emperor, to whom they had made a pledge to restore captured cities. They wanted to capture territory for themselves. To that end, they split their troops off from the main force and headed toward the Mediterranean coast and the city of Tarsus.

The people of Tarsus were largely Armenian Christians, so they welcomed the Crusaders and gladly raised their flag over the city. Baldwin, whose force was much larger than Tancred's, insisted that the city be turned over to him. Seeing that he had little choice, Tancred gave in and headed west along the coast, where he seized the towns of Adama and Mamistra. Like Tarsus, these were Armenian towns whose Christian residents welcomed the Crusaders.

Baldwin then set his sights on the wealthy city of Edessa farther inland, where he and his forces were eagerly welcomed as deliverers by the Christian Armenian residents of the city. Baldwin's first step after entering the city was to force its ruler to adopt him as a son. The ruler faced a great deal of resentment from his subjects because of his ties to Alexius, and just a month later an angry mob of them killed him. The mob was most likely provoked by Baldwin, who, as the ruler's heir, was now rich. He married an Armenian princess and settled in as the sole ruler of the city and the surrounding area. In one of their first major victories, the Crusaders, ironically, seized a city from Christian rather than Muslim hands.

The "poetry" of the Crusades emphasizes the efforts of noble knights to gain honor and glory. The "religion" of the Crusades emphasizes efforts of sincere Christians to rescue the tomb of Christ from infidels. But the fact remains that the Crusades were often as much business and politics as they were poetry and religion. Throughout the nearly two-hundred-year history of the Crusades, fighting took up far less time than political infighting, disputes over the crown of Jerusalem and the other Crusader states, and the amassing of wealth. While the popes were not always content with the outcome of Crusades, particularly the failure to recapture Jerusalem, the Crusades helped relocate and redirect much of this misspent energy to the Middle East and a common foe. At the same time, they increased the wealth of many European noblemen.

The Crusade against the Cathars

Another pope who used the Crusades to assert papal authority was Innocent III, who was pope at the time of the Fourth Crusade, which he called in 1198. Innocent, a ruthless, unfeeling pope who craved power, wanted to impose a Christian monarchy over the whole of the known world. He had long wanted the Eastern Orthodox Church to bow to the authority of Rome, and he became obsessed with the reconquest of Jerusalem, which had been lost in 1187.

Not everyone, however, shared the pope's view of papal authority. At the time, a community of Christians who lived largely in southern France refused to acknowledge the pope's authority, either as a temporal or spiritual leader. These people were called the Cathars, a name that means "Pure Ones." In the view of the Cathars, the physical world was evil. They believed that only the poor—in contrast to the worldly and wealthy church—were Christ's true followers. They refused to believe that the sacraments (religious rites) or the words of priests and bishops offered a path to salvation. Many of them wandered the countryside living lives of godliness and poverty. To "correct" the Cathars, the religious order of the Dominican friars, who would themselves lead lives of poverty and simplicity, was formed. But the Cathars refused to yield even to the devout Dominicans.

The pope, though, would tolerate no challenge to his authority. He believed that the Cathars were heretics, or believers in false religious doctrine, and he was determined to wipe them out. His own chilling words, as quoted by Jonathan and Louise Riley-Smith in The Crusades: Idea and Reality, 1095–1274, were these:

Let us apply ourselves without cease, and with the help of many, to enforce correction on this vile [wicked] breed of people Ö ulcers which do not respond to treatment with dressings must be cut out with the knife. Those who hold cheap the correction of the Church must be crushed by the arm of secular power.

Accordingly, the pope called a "crusade," urging Christians throughout Europe to rid Christendom of the Cathars. He began by advising the southern French counts of Toulouse and Béiers to rid their provinces of the "enemy" that lived among them. The counts, who were not Cathars, refused to do so. The pope then ordered the northern French to do it instead, promising them that if they went to war against the south, they could keep any property they seized—the same promise Urban II had made to the Crusaders in 1095. By playing the north against the south, the pope was expertly taking advantage of the tension that existed between them. The south tended to be a region of artists, troubadours (singers), and poets. Southerners were apt to see their northern countrymen as ignorant barbarians. The north was more commercial and down-to-earth. Its stereotype of the south was that the people were wild-eyed dreamers.

Enticed by the promise of booty (goods and valuables of the enemy), an army of northern French crusaders led by the Abbot of Cîteaux began launching attacks against small towns in the south of France. Their goal was not to seize territory, as the goal of the first four Crusades had been. Their goal was mass murder. On July 22, 1208, this army attacked the town of Béziers. Elizabeth Hallam, in Chronicles of the Crusades: Eye-witness Accounts of the Wars between Christianity and Islam, quotes the abbot, writing later to the pope: "Our forces spared neither rank nor sex nor age. Thus did divine vengeance vent its wondrous rage." Not a single inhabitant of the town was spared. This genocide (deliberate murder of an entire cultural group) against the Cathars and others whom the pope saw as heretics lasted for twenty years. The goal was to stamp out unbelief and assert the church's authority, and the popes used crusading as a way to keep this spirit alive.

The economics of the Crusades

Even during the Middle Ages war was business. It took immense amounts of money to gather and equip an army, transport it long distances, and provision it along the way. Increasing the expense was generally the massive shadow army of pages (youths in service to a knight), squires (attendants to a nobleman), servants, cooks, blacksmiths, priests, bishops, and prostitutes that accompanied the Crusaders.

But unlike today, when troops are paid out of a national treasury funded by taxes, the Crusaders were largely self-financed—that is, the Crusaders paid their own way. For this reason, the various popes who called Crusades depended heavily on the nobles of Europe. It was the nobles, not the kings, who commanded the resources needed to finance a Crusade. An exception to this system came during the Third Crusade, when Kings Richard I of England and Philip II of France enacted the Saladin tithe, referring to the Muslim general whose military successes prompted the Crusade. (A tithe is a tenth and refers to the custom of Christians to donate a tenth of their income to the church.) The tithe was a direct tax levied, or charged, on all church and nonchurch income. This was the first time in western Europe that such a tax had ever been imposed. It introduced permanently a system for collecting and distributing money raised through taxes to pay the expenses of government.

The knights who fought in the Crusades were not paid. They were compensated with the spoils of war (goods obtained or stolen through war) and with land they seized in the Middle East. In the years following the First Crusade, they transplanted the feudal system of Europe to their colonies. Like landowners back in their home countries, these Crusaders ran their affairs from the cities while employing the local people as tenants on farms, groves, and vineyards in the surrounding areas.

All of this, though, took money and supplies from Europe. One of the permanent benefits of the Crusades was that they led to a more organized system of trade, finance, and credit around the Mediterranean Sea. Like many such developments throughout history, what began in the service of war produced immense benefits later during peacetime. At the center of this system were the Italians, especially the merchants of such trading cities as Venice, Pisa, and Genoa. These cities' locations on the Italian coastline made them naturals for the role. They were centrally located and had ready access to ports and shipping lanes along the Levant (the countries along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean) and throughout the region.

At first, the merchants of these cities did not see much profit potential in the Crusades; the first Crusaders carried everything they needed with them and took a route overland to the Holy Land. The Genoese altered that view when they took a gamble and shipped supplies and equipment to the siege at Antioch (see "The First Crusade" in Chapter 6). When the blockade was lifted, they had a permanent foothold there as merchants. The Venetians and the Pisans followed the Genoese and carved out their own market share on the Levant. The Italians invested heavily in fleets of ships to transport goods and people.

At times the Crusades wound up serving purely commercial interests. Good examples are provided by the Third and Fourth Crusades. The Pisans played a major role in the Third Crusade, particularly during the siege of Acre (in modern-day Israel). Leading the siege initially was Guy of Lusignan, king of Jerusalem. Guy at first tried to lay siege to the city of Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon), which was by this time in the hands of the Muslim general Saladin. He gathered a force and marched on the city. Incredibly, though, an Italian named Conrad of Montferrat, a Crusader with a talent for finance, had taken control of the city's business interests and refused to let Guy in. He was happy with the way things were, for he had a monopoly (exclusive ownership) on trade between the city and Europe. Guy then decided to move his forces to Acre to lay siege to that city, and the Pisans offered to help. In exchange for business rights throughout much of the kingdom of Acre, they ferried Guy and his troops to Acre and helped with the siege.

Saladin was in the process of trying, unsuccessfully, to drive Guy and his troops away from Acre when Richard I of England and Philip II of France arrived. With their help, Acre was restored to Christian hands and continued to operate as a key seaport on the Levant during later Crusades. It was this city, a business center, and not the holy city of Jerusalem, that stood as the Crusaders' last outpost in the Middle East when it fell in 1291, bringing an end to the Crusades.

The Fourth Crusade, under the influence of the doge (duke) of Venice, never got anywhere near Jerusalem. Instead, the Crusaders attacked and sacked Constantinople, greatly increasing the power and wealth of the Venetian merchants. The crafty doge was able, in effect, to hijack the Crusade by offering the Crusaders the protection of a fleet of warships in exchange for half of the booty that could be collected. His motive in persuading the Crusaders to attack Constantinople had nothing to do with rescuing the tomb of Christ or freeing the Holy Land. He was angry because the Byzantine emperor was offering more favorable trading terms to the Genoans and Pisans and violating trade agreements with Venice. The sack of Constantinople increased the wealth not only of Venice but also of much of Europe, for the Crusaders returned to their homes with anything of value they could carry from the city.

In sum, the Crusades were not the result of a sudden need in Europe to come to the aid of the Byzantine emperor or solely to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims. While these were key factors motivating the Crusades, a number of other factors—religious hysteria, the expansion of feudalism, the custom of primogeniture, growing poverty, social changes, expanding business interests, and the ambitions of popes—all came together at a moment in history. The result was a period of heroic combat and senseless slaughter, of religious fervor and moneygrubbing, of nobility and betrayal, of epic poetry and melancholy tragedy.

For More Information


Hallam, Elizabeth, ed. Chronicles of the Crusades: Eye-witness Accounts of the Wars between Christianity and Islam. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989.

Hamilton, Franklin. The Crusades. New York: Dial Press, 1965.

Mayer, Hans Eberhard. The Crusades. Translated by John Gillingham. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Painter, Sidney. "Western Europe on the Eve of the Crusades." In A History of the Crusades, vol. 1. Edited by Marshall W. Baldwin. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Payne, Robert. The Dream and the Tomb: A History of the Crusades. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.

Riley-Smith, Jonathan, and Louise Riley-Smith. The Crusades: Idea andReality, 1095–1274. London: Edward Arnold, 1981.

Zacour, Norman P. "The Children's Crusade." In A History of the Crusades, vol. 2. Edited by Robert Lee Wolff and Harry W. Hazard. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Web Sites

"Crusades." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2004. (accessed on August 11, 2004).

Medieval Crusades. (accessed on August 11, 2004).