Using the Faith

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Using the Faith

Excerpt from "The Saladin Tithe" (1188)
Original declaration of Henry II, King of England; Reprinted in Source Book for Medieval Economic History; Edited by Roy C. Cave and Herbert H. Coulson; Published in 1965

Religious faith was put to powerful use during the two hundred years of the Crusades. Time and again, faithful Christians and Muslims were called to arms to fight for their god. Over and over, the inhabitants of Europe and the Middle East were asked by their spiritual leaders to put their private lives on hold and risk all for a matter of faith: control of the Holy Land and the sites in Jerusalem that are sacred to both religions.

Raising an army is not a simple process. Strong preachers were needed on both sides to fire up the people, to fill them with enthusiasm for a holy war. But when the soldiers were gathered, there came the question of who would pay to feed and arm these forces, which were often forty thousand to fifty thousand strong. With the First Crusade (1095–99), Crusaders were expected to pay their own way to the Holy Land and be able to support themselves while there. But such was the enthusiasm for a holy war that armies of common people and poor farmers also set off for Constantinople in 1096, following the powerful preacher Peter the Hermit. These people expected to survive on the goods and property that they could seize from people they conquered in battle. Thus many Crusades started close to home with actions against the Jews. Christians believed that the call for Crusades often legitimized, or made lawful, stealing from the European Jews.

Nobles who set off on the Crusades often sold part of their holdings, or lands, to finance the cost of their own travels and that of the men they brought with them. Richard I, the Lionheart, of England supposedly said that he would sell off all of London to finance his trip during the Third Crusade (1189–92) if he could find a buyer. By 1165 the king of France promised to give a small percentage of his annual income to help fund Crusades and asked the noblemen of his kingdom to do the same. This money was collected by the local, or parish, priest and kept in a huge chest. This practice continued to spread, and in 1185 the king of England was also issuing such a tax. When both the kings of England and France agreed to go on a Crusade in 1188, they decided to put another tax on all those people who did not go to the Crusade to regain Jerusalem from the Muslim leader, Saladin, who had taken the city in 1187. Called the Saladin Tithe, this payment was set at 10 percent of a person's annual income, the highest tax ever laid on the people of these kingdoms. In the following excerpt from the declaration of King Henry II of England, we see exactly who paid this tithe and how much, as well as who was excused from it.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Using the Faith":

  • The church also raised money for the Crusades by taxing its own clergy, or those ordained to lead religious services. For the Fourth Crusade (1202–04) Pope Innocent III had the clergy pay a fortieth of their yearly income. The bill continued to rise for the clergy, too, reaching a twentieth of their income by the late thirteenth century.
  • Muslims also pay a tithe, or religious tax, but in Islam this is called the zakat and is one of the five pillars, or main principles, of their faith. This tithe is set between 2 and 3 percent of a person's annual income and is meant to help support the poor and establish social justice and equality throughout Islam.
  • Tax collectors were needed for such tithes, and at first this duty fell to the Christian clergy. But soon, other groups took over the job. Two military religious orders were founded in the Holy Land early in the twelfth century, the Knights Hospitallers in 1113 and the Knights Templar in 1118. To begin with, these religious orders helped Christians in the Holy Land, either in hospitals or by securing their travel to pilgrimage sites. But these functions quickly grew when the church recognized the orders and approved of their role as elite monk-soldiers defending the Holy Land. The Teutonic Knights were added to these groups later, and together the three orders became the professional soldiers of the Holy Land. But they also had a less military role: the Templars and the Hospitallers both helped collect tithes in Europe in 1185 and 1188.
  • The Templars and Hospitallers were supported by alms, or charitable money given by the church and nobles. Both orders soon became wealthy. They were then able to establish institutions all over Europe and the Holy Land.
  • The famous Catholic scholar of the twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux, laid out the rules and regulations of the Knights Templar order. He attempted to clearly define what the Templars could and could not do, from dress to manner of prayer. He also made an excuse for allowing such religious men to kill, something that the Christian Ten Commandments seems to disapprove of. In his treatise, or policy statement, "In Praise of the New Knighthood," Bernard made the distinction between "homicide," killing another human, and "malicide," killing evil itself. Clearly, for Bernard and the church, killing Muslims in the name of God did not go against church doctrine.

Excerpt from "The Saladin Tithe"

  1. Each person will give in charity one tenth of his rents and movable goods for the taking of the land of Jerusalem; except for the arms, horses, and clothing of knights, and likewise for the horses, books, clothing, and vestments , and church furniture of the clergy, and except for precious stones belonging to the clergy or the laity .
  2. Let the money be collected in every parish in the presence of the parish priest and of the rural dean , and of one Templar and one Hospitaller , and of a servant of the Lord King and a clerk of the King, and of a servant of a baron and his clerk, and the clerk of the bishop; and let the archbishops, bishops, and deans in every parish excommunicate every one who does not pay the lawful tithe , in the presence of, and to the certain knowledge of, those who, as has been said above, ought to be present. And if any one according to the knowledge of those men give less than he should, let there be elected from the parish four or six lawful men, who shall say on oath what is the quantity that he ought to have declared; then it shall be reasonable to add to his payment what he failed to give.
  3. But the clergy and knights who have taken the cross , shall give none of that tithe except from their own goods and the property of their lord; and whatever their men owe shall be collected for their use by the above and returned intact to them.
  4. Moreover, the bishops in every parish of their sees shall cause to be announced by their letters on Christmas Day and on the Feast of St. Stephen , and on the Feast of St. John , that each will collect the said tithe into his own hands before the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and, on the following day and afterwards, each will pay, in the presence of those who have been mentioned, at the place to which he has been summoned .

What happened next…

The amount earned by the Saladin Tithe was quite large for its day, more than seventy thousand pounds, or close to $100 million. But it was so unpopular among the nobles that the kings of France and of England had to promise never again to set such a high tax, and they kept their word. In the future such taxes were kept at levels of about 5 percent at the highest. One thing such taxes as the Saladin Tithe proved, though, was that the secular, or nonreligious, powers of Europe were able to raise vast sums by this method of taxation. Up to the eleventh century only the church had been able to collect money from the faithful through such tithing, but the nobles had not yet done so. The Crusades provided an emergency situation, though, and the kings of Europe took advantage of it to begin a required tax for a specific purpose. Such a system ultimately led to the modern income tax that people all over the world groan about at tax time.

German Fighting Monks

The Knights Templar was one of several military orders founded during the Crusades. The other main orders were the Knights Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights, or the Teutonic Order, founded in 1190. Like the Hospitallers, the Teutonic Knights grew out of an order of monks, or religious men, who served at a hospital in Jerusalem. The Hospital of Saint Mary of the Teutons served mostly German crusaders. When it became a fighting order, Teutonic Knights' members took the usual vow of monks: poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Unlike the two other orders, however, the Teutonic Knights played a role not only in defending the Holy Land but also in bringing central and eastern Europe under the thumb of the church. They were forced into this role because the other two orders were so well organized in the Holy Land and there was little room for the TeutonicKnights to grow there. In Europe they fought non-Christians and also breakaway Christian groups. In Transylvania they battled a tribe called the Cumans in the service of Andrew II of Hungary. They also helped defeat tribes in land that is now northern Germany and the Baltic states, bringing them under Christian rule for a Polish duke. The Teutonic Order was centered in Germany and had a strong central administration. This, in turn, helped lay the foundation for the Prussian state, which ultimately led to modern Germany. The order lost much of its power in the sixteenth century during the Reformation, when the Catholic Church was challenged by the new Protestant Church in Prussia. The Teutonic Knights hung on after that time in the Catholic parts of Germany until the beginning of the nineteenth century. It survived in some parts of Europe into the twenty-first century, but only as a sort of club or honorary order.

The Knights Templars became bound up in financing the Crusades when they acted as middlemen in Crusader banking or money transfers from Europe to the Holy Land. Crusaders could deposit their money in Europe with a Templar house and then receive credit for it from Templars in the Holy Land when they arrived there. This system is similar to modern-day travelers checks. This system of credit was important, as many Crusaders were robbed on their way to the Holy Land or lost their funds in shipwrecks en route. The Knights Templars also continued to play an important role in the defense of the Crusader states in the Holy Land, respected by friends and enemies alike. However, the rivalry that grew between them, the Hospitallers, and the Teutonic Knights was partly responsible for the weakening of the Crusader states and their inability to come together to fight their common enemy, Islam. The three orders did forget their differences finally, but too late, at the unsuccessful defense of the Crusader city of Acre when it fell to the Muslims in 1291.

This defeat marked the end of the Crusader states in the Holy Land and the Templars, along with the other military orders, retreated from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Templars went to Cyprus, where they gave up their soldiering and focused on banking and money exchange. But as their wealth grew, they gained new enemies, including the king of France, Philip IV, who wanted their wealth to finance a war in Belgium. He arranged for the downfall of the Templars, accusing them of sacrilegious, or nonreligious, behavior. This allowed the king to take the money and property of the Templars. The order was completely destroyed in 1314, and its leader, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake for heresy (going against the teachings of the church).

Did you know…

  • The system of tithing, or of giving one-tenth of a person's annual crops or income to support the clergy, goes back to ancient times. This was made obligatory, or required, by the Catholic Church in the sixth century.
  • Crusading was an expensive business. At the time of the Seventh Crusade (1248–54), Louis IX of France spent close to three million livres, a currency of the time. This amount equaled more than twelve times his annual income.
  • By the middle of the thirteenth century the pope had gotten out of the business of sponsoring Crusades, leaving it to the kings of Europe, such as Louis IX of France. The church continued to collect money from the faithful for the Crusades, but this was handed over directly to the Crusaders.
  • The three military-religious orders that were developed during the Crusades could easily be identified by their uniforms. While the members of the Knights Templars wore a white robe with a red cross on it, the Hospitallers chose a white cross against a black robe; the Teutonic Knights went for a black cross on a white robe.
  • Becoming a knight was no easy job. At the age of seven, noble youths became pages, or boy servants, in the castles of other nobles. Then, at about age fourteen, they traded in the short dagger, or knife, of the page for a sword and trained as squires in the apprenticeship, or the service, of other knights, learning the skills of horsemanship and military techniques. After seven years of such training, they were knighted, usually at the age of twenty-one.
  • The Crusades were an expensive and tragic time in terms of lives lost as well as money spent. It is difficult to estimate the total number of people who died in the two centuries of ongoing religious wars, but by adding up the body counts from various contemporary accounts of massacres and deaths by disease and in battles from both the Muslim and Christian documents, some historians have calculated that about 1.5 million people died between 1096 and the end of the Crusades in 1291. Of course, by modern-day standards this seems like a low number. Fifty million died in World War II alone. And then there were also the Mongol wars of conquest during the thirteenth century, at the same time as the Crusades. It is estimated that forty million people were killed as the Mongols built their empire, this at a time when the total world population was estimated to be just four hundred million people.

Consider the following…

  • Explain how the Catholic Church tried to finance the Crusades.
  • Discuss two financial aspects of the Crusades that led to modern banking and taxing systems.
  • What role do you think religion should have in the political life of a nation?

Vestments: Religious robes.

Laity: Lay people, or worshippers, as opposed to the clergy, or preachers.

Parish: Church administrative district.

Dean: Local church official.

Templar: Religious military order, the Knights Templars.

Hospitaller: Religious military order, the Knights Hospitallers.

Excommunicate: Expel from the church.

Tithe: A religious tax, usually one-tenth of annual earnings.

Oath: A sworn promise to tell the truth.

Taken the Cross: Agreed to go on Crusade.

Intact: Unused, whole.

Sees: Larger administrative districts for the church.

Feast of St. Stephen: Holy day in the Catholic Church, December 26.

Feast of St. John: Holy day in the Catholic Church, June 22–23.

Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin: Holy day in the Catholic Church, February 2.

Summoned: Called to be present.

For More Information


Cave, Roy C., and Herbert H. Coulson. A Source Book for Medieval Economic History. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1965.

Zacour, N. P., and H. W. Hazard, eds. A History of the Crusades, Volume 6, The Impact of the Crusades on Europe. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Web Sites

Bernard of Clairvaux, "In Praise of the New Knighthood." ORB. Available (accessed August 4, 2004).

Henry the II. "The Saladin Tithe, 1188." Internet Medieval Sourcebook. (accessed August 4, 2004).