The Crusades

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The Crusades


The Crusades were a series of military campaigns waged by Christian armies against Muslim-controlled areas in the Holy Land beginning in 1095 and continuing on an intermittent basis even as late as the sixteenth century. While the Crusading momentum seems to have begun with the justification of rescuing holy places from Muslim control, it is likely that the motivation for the First Crusade was a complex mixture of religious emotion, individual ambition, and political programs. Pope Urban II's call to crusade was in response to the March 1095 request from the court of Byzantine emperor Alexius for military assistance against the Turks threatening to take control of much of Asia Minor. It is clear that Urban was concerned about the pressure Islam was exerting on the eastern frontiers of Christendom. He was also anxious to improve relations between the Greek and Latin Churches. At the Council of Clermont in November of 1095, Urban's call for pilgrims to respond to a war (that was God's will) to liberate the land of Jesus's birth from the Infidel (one who is "unfaithful to the true teaching," a terminology used by both Christians and Muslims to refer to each another) had decidedly religious overtones. It is no surprise that the first group to whom he presented this idea were predominantly clergy. Many of these clerics were sons of knights, hardly any were pacifists, and it appears there were few objections to this justification for war. Clearly, at the heart of his agenda was the desire to free the Greeks from Muslim oppression. However, the idea of the liberation of Jerusalem and its pilgrim routes seemed to be what was most ideologically appealing to Western Christians. The response to Urban's 1095 tour of preaching, beginning at Clermont, moving through various parts of France (Limoges, Toulouse, Angers, Le Mans, Nîmes, Tours) and ending in Italy, was impressive. The fact that the pope had made a personal and individual appeal to local people may have had a tremendous impact. An army of 70,000 to possibly 130,000 Christians (many of them French, probably fewer than ten percent from the nobility) followed bishops like Adhémar of Le Puy, preachers such as Peter the Hermit and Walter Sans-Avoir, and veteran knights like Raymond of Toulouse and Godfrey of Bouillon through strange territories they had never before seen, under the religious pretext of rescuing the Holy Places. Not all departed together or took the same routes. Many of them never reached the Holy Land and, clearly, fewer than a third returned. The successful response to the First Crusade may have been due to several factors: it was completely voluntary, it was proposed as an act of devotion, and it carried with it a means to ensure remission of sin. Indeed, while the initial indulgence proposed by Urban granted a remission from temporal penance, during later Crusades it would be modified to include punishments both in this life and the next.

Related Persecutions.

Several of the armies from Germany began their crusade against infidels by unleashing violence upon Jews living in Europe. In 1096 at Worms, Mainz, Ratisbon, Neuss, Wevelinghofen, Xanten, and Prague, Jewish residents were massacred in the name of the Christian holy war, partially justified by the popular notion that it was the Jews who had killed Jesus. Such persecutions of non-Christians outside the Holy Land would not be limited to the First Crusade, but were tied to subsequent holy wars as well. They included not only Jews, but other ethnic and religious groups living throughout Europe. Muslims in Spain, Wends (Slavic people) on the German borderlands, multiple pagan groups in the Baltic, and the Cathars (a heretical Christian sect who believed that Satan ruled the earth) in France also suffered during the various Crusades.

Outcomes of the First Crusade.

The First Crusade was relatively successful despite the loss of large numbers of troops along the way, as well as some questionable pillaging by Latin crusaders in Hungarian and Byzantine cities. While only one-third of the initial contingent reached Jerusalem, they were able not only to free major Byzantine centers such as Nicea from Muslim control, but also to secure Christian settlements along the way, particularly on the western coast of the Mediterranean in the future Latin kingdoms of Edessa, Antioch, and Jerusalem. At the outset, a Latin principality at Edessa was established under Baldwin, the brother of Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, in 1198. This was followed by the siege of Antioch, which took over a year but resulted in Latin control of that fortress as well as the surrounding area. In the summer of 1099 Jerusalem was finally toppled. However, with the death of Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy at Antioch, there was no strong, rational voice of the church to stop the bloodbath in the city of Jerusalem following the siege. Soldiers, women, children, Muslims, Jews—indeed, most of the inhabitants of the city—were slaughtered by the crusading army. Shortly thereafter, the remnants of the army returned to Europe in triumph.

The Crusading Kingdoms.

Subsequent establishment of the Latin Crusading Kingdoms would take place within the next few decades under a second generation of French campaigners, all with papal support. The Knights Templar set up headquarters in Jerusalem under Hugh de Payens to ensure that the Holy Places and Christian pilgrims remained protected. A continued military presence was required for the western Christians to maintain control of the region. An additional kingdom was established at Tripoli between Jerusalem and Antioch. Each Latin kingdom had its own rulers or princes, most of which were drawn from the French nobility who decided to settle and manage the area. Vassal territories and Latin castles were established throughout the Levant. A small number of Westerners (possibly 2,000) acted as administrators and lords over numerous Muslim and Jewish subjects. Part of the task of the settlers, especially in Jerusalem, was to rebuild the shrines associated with the holy sites. During the twelfth century, once the territory was secure, large numbers of European pilgrims came to visit and venerate the sacred places. Schools, hostels, monasteries, and churches began to proliferate throughout Jerusalem. One of the great accomplishments of the early crusader period was the rebuilding of the Holy Sepulchre (the supposed location of the tomb of Christ) into one of the greatest Romanesque churches in Christendom. What the First Crusade actually accomplished was to establish Latin dominance in the Holy Land, creating wealth for many French noble families, and to set into motion the religious and political mechanisms for future defense and campaigns.



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The Failure of the Second Crusade.

After the successes of the First Crusade, the concept of Holy War and the religious obligation of Christians to control the Holy Land and purge society of non-believers was firmly entrenched. The Second Crusade was spurred by the fall of Edessa (then part of Syria, now Urfa in Turkey) on Christmas of 1144 to the Muslim leader Zengi. At stake for Western Christians was the impending threat to Jerusalem itself. There seemed to have been somewhat less enthusiasm for this second campaign, but Pope Eugenius III's papal bull Quantum Praedecessores spelled out for the first time specific spiritual privileges available to participating crusaders. The crusade proclamation was delivered by Eugenius at Vetralle and later recorded in Bishop Otto of Freising's Gesta. Assisted by the charismatic preaching of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and other Cistercians, the Second Crusade organization gained some momentum. Secular bishops like Henry of Olmütz were directed to preach the Bohemian Crusade, while there were simultaneous crusades launched against the Wends in northern Europe and the Moors in Spain. When the effort to recapture Edessa ultimately proved unsuccessful, the crusaders decided instead to journey on to Jerusalem (which was still secure) to do homage to the holy sites. At that point, the crusaders attempted a joint attack upon the city of Damascus. This military effort proved to be a disaster, and the crusaders returned home shortly after. The failure of the Second Crusade was attributed to the sinfulness, pride, and bickering of the contestants who traveled to the Holy Land under the pretense of being pilgrims. Instead, they insulted God with their unworthiness. According to St. Bernard, it was God who allowed the bungled Christian attempt to fail, not merely due to the sins of the crusaders themselves, but the collective sinfulness of all of Christianity.


introduction: At the beginning, the Crusades were a popular movement, both because they reopened the Holy Land to pilgrimage travel and because they provided an opportunity for Christian service and reward. But eventually the Crusades began to draw increasing criticism. A number of church councils (beginning in 1149) were called to debate the merits of crusading or to discuss whether or not failed crusades should be revived. The following excerpt comes from a report by Humbert of Romans, fifth Master General of the Dominican Order, delivered at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274.

There are some of these critics who say that it is not in accordance with the Christian religion to shed blood in this way, even that of wicked infidels. For Christ did not act thus …

There are others who say that although one ought not to spare Saracen blood one must, however, be sparing to Christian blood and deaths … Is it wisdom to put at risk in this way so many and such great men of ours? …

There are others who say that when our men go overseas to fight the Saracens the conditions of war are much worse for our side, for we are very few in comparison to their great numbers. We are, moreover, on alien territory … And so it looks as though we are putting God to the test …

There are others who say that, although we have a duty to defend ourselves against the Saracens when they attack us, it does not seem that we ought to attack their lands or their persons when they leave us in peace …

There are others who say that, if we ought to rid the world of Saracens, why do we not do the same to the Jews? …

Other people are asking, what is the point of this attack on the Saracens? For they are not roused to conversion by it but rather are stirred up against the Christian faith …

Others say that it does not appear to be God's will that Christians should proceed against the Saracens in this way, because of the misfortunes which God has allowed and is still allowing to happen to the Christians engaged in this business.

How could the Lord have allowed Saladin to retake the land won with so much Christian blood, the emperor Frederick to perish in shallow water and King Louis to be captured in Egypt … if this kind of proceeding had been pleasing to him?

source: Humbert of Romans, "Humbert of Romans to the Second Council of Lyon, 1274," in The Atlas of the Crusades. Ed. Jonathan Riley-Smith (New York: Facts on File, 1991): 80.

Successes and Disasters.

It took some time after the failure of the Second Crusade for Christians to be able to legitimize another campaign. Christian presence in the Holy Land did not altogether disappear as Templar and Hospitaller strongholds dotted the landscape along the Mediterranean, where Latin Christians maintained control of the kingdoms at Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem, sustaining a presence in an area some 100 miles long and 30 miles wide. However, the southern part of that territory around the city of Jerusalem was conquered in 1187 by the Muslim leader Saladin, resulting in a massive response of combined European forces descending upon the port city of Acre over the next four years. By 1192 the Third Crusade succeeded in recovering some of the coastal territory along the Mediterranean, particularly around the cities of Tripoli, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The following Crusade, however, went seriously off course. While originally intended to fight Muslims in Egypt, the Fourth Crusade instead engaged itself with interventionary efforts in Christian cities. Departing from Venice in Italy during 1202, the crusaders first rescued the Croatian city of Zara, which had previously been lost to the Hungarians in 1186. Behind schedule and short on cash, they were convinced—by arguments ranging from Christian charity and a promise of permanent papal jurisdiction to a substantial monetary reward—to go to Constantinople in 1204 to assist in resolving a dispute between rival Byzantine factions. Having little to show for their previous efforts, the crusaders ended up engaging in a three-day sacking of the city that left all of the Byzantine Christian holy places, including Hagia Sophia, defiled and stripped of everything of value. While most crusaders simply went home with their loot, some stayed to support the new Latin Kingdom that would last for fifty years.

Continuing Campaigns.

Perhaps because the Crusades blended religious motivation with opportunities for political domination and enrichment, new campaigns continued throughout the Middle Ages. The Fifth Crusade of the early thirteenth century was intent upon rescuing Jerusalem, which was still under Muslim dominion. But it also targeted the power base of the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt in an effort to stabilize Christian control of the Holy Land. After four years of effort, the Fifth Crusade inevitably failed. Crusades against the heretical Cathars and pagans in the Baltic during the early thirteenth century, as well as crusades to restore papal power in the late thirteenth century, were more successful. They were all attempted under the guise of similar crusade ideals—ridding the Western Christian world of threats to the orthodoxy of its belief system. The Crusades of St. Louis in the thirteenth century and the Popular Crusades (Children's in 1212, Shepherds' in 1251 and 1320, as well as the People's in 1309), all of noble intent, were highly influenced by the crusading propaganda of the time. Crusaders were convinced that righteous participants were the key to success in defeating the Infidel. St. Louis's initial crusade effort in 1248 is sometimes known as the Sixth Crusade, but, after this, historians seem to stop counting. There were a variety of smaller crusades that continued through the next several centuries linked to both religious and political agendas. At this point, all sorts of arguments were presented concerning the pros and cons of crusading, as illustrated in a report given to the Second Council of Lyon during 1274 by Humbert of Romans. Despite objections and the fall of Acre to the Islamic Mamluk dynasty in 1291, the idea of the crusade remained alive in Latin Christendom through the sixteenth century.


Hans Eberhard Mayer, The Crusades (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

J. M. Powell, The Anatomy of a Crusade 1213–1221 (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986).

D. E. Queller, The Fourth Crusade (Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1978).

Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades; A Short History (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987).

Christopher Tyerman, The Invention of the Crusades (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998).

see also Visual Arts: Spanish Culture and the Muslims