The Crusades

The High Middle Ages, 1000-1300

Date:    1992


The Crusades


     The most dramatic expression of Europe on the offensive in the High

Middle Ages was the Crusades. For hundreds of years peaceful pilgrims had been

traveling from Europe to worship at the birthplace of Christ. By the tenth

century bishops were organizing mass pilgrimages to the Holy Land; the largest

of these, which set out from Germany in 1065, included about seven thousand



     During the eleventh century, however, Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land

became especially concerned and aggravated when the Seljuk Turks, who were new

and fanatical converts to Islam, took over Jerusalem from the more tolerant

Abbasid Muslims. Byzantine forces desperately tried to bar the Seljuks, but at

the battle of Manzikert (1071) the eastern emperor was captured and his army

scattered. Within a few years Asia Minor, the chief source of Byzantine

revenue and troops, was lost, and the emperor was writing to western princes

and to the pope seeking mercenaries with which to regain lost territories. In

addition, tales of alleged Turkish mistreatement of Christian pilgrims

circulated throughout Europe, and though there is evidence that these stories

were propaganda, they inflamed Christian public opinion.


     In 1095 Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade to regain the Holy

Land. Preaching at the Council of Clermont in that year, he exhorted

Christians to take up the cross and strive for a cause that promised not

merely spiritual rewards but material gain as well. At the end of his

impassioned oration the crowd shouted "God wills it" - the expression the

crusaders later used in battle.


     Although the pope saw in the crusade an outlet for the restlesss energy

of quarreling nobels - their warring fervor would be channeled for the glory

of God - the primary impetus behind the crusade was probably religious. It was

viewed as a holy war, and following Pope Urban's appeal, there was a real and

spontaneous outpouring of religious enthusiasm. The word crusade itself is

derived from "taking the cross," after the example of Christ.


The Results Of The Crusades


     From the end of the eleventh century to the end of the thirteenth, there

were seven major crusades, as well as various small expenditions that from

time to time, warred against the Muslins in the Near East, whom the crusaders

called Saracens. The First Crusade, composed of feudal nobles from France,

parts of Germany, and Norman Italy, proceeded overland to Constantiople.

Having expected the help of European mercenaries agains the Seljuks, the

emperor Alexius Comnenus was taken aback when confronted by an unruly horde of

what Pope Urban himself had called "aforetime robbers." He hastily directed

the crusaders out of Constantinople to fight the Turks. The First Crusade was

the most successful of the seven; with not more than 5000 knights and

infantry, it overcame the resistance of the Turks, who were no longer united.

Above all, it captured Jerusalem, the Holy City. The First Crusade conquered a

narrow strip of land stretching from Antioch to Jerusalem and created the

Latin kingdom of Jerusalem (distinct from the city itself), over which

Crusaders and Muslims continued to battle until the region finally was retaken

by the Muslims in 1291.


     When the kingdom of Jerusalem became endangered, St. Bernard of Clairvaux

induced the kings of France and Germany to lead the Second Crusade in 1147. It

never reached Jerusalem, having turned aside to attack Damascus where its

forces were routed.


     The fall of Jerusalem in 1187 to the Muslims, reinvigorated under the

leadership of Saladin, the Kurdish sultan of Egypt and Syria, provoked the

Third Crusade in 1189. Its leaders were three of the most famous medieval

kings - Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, Richard the Lion-Hearted of England,

and Philip Augustus of France. Frederick was drowned in Asia Minor; and, after

many quarrels with Richard, Philip returned home. Saladin and Richard remained

the protagonists, but finally agreed to a three year truce and free access to

Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims.


     The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) was a disaster from a religious

perspective. No kings answered Pope Innocent II call, and the knights who did

were unable to pay the Venetians the agreed-upon transport charges. The

Venetians persuaded the crusaders to pay off the sum by capturing the

Christian town of Zara on the Adriatic coast, which had long proved

troublesome to Venetian trading interests. Then, in order to absorb all

Byzantine commerce, the Venetians pressured the crusaders into attacking

Constantinople. After conquering and sacking the greatest city in Europe, the

crusaders set up the Latin empire of Constantinople and forgot about

recovering the Holy Land.


     The thirteenth century saw other crusades. The youngsters of the

ill-fated Children's Crusade in 1212 fully expected the waters of the

Mediterranean to part and make a path to the Holy Land, which they would take

without fighting, but thousands of them were sold into slavery by Marseilles

merchants. The Fifth Crusade in 1219 failed in its attack on Egypt, the center

of Muslim power in the Near East. The unique Sixth Crusade in 1228 was

organized and led by the excommunicated enemy of the pope, the emperor

Frederick II, who by skillfull diplomacy succeeded in acquiring Jerusalem,

Bethlehem, and Nazareth from the sultan of Egypt without striking a blow. This

arrangement ended in 1244 with the Muslim reconquest of the Holy City. The

loss inspired the saintly Louis IX of France to organize the Seventh Crusade

in 1248, but despite his zeal it ended in a fiasco when Louis was captured in

Egypt and forced to pay an enormous ransom. This was the last major attempt to

regain Jerusalem, and the era of the crusades ended in 1291 when Acre, the

last stronghold of the Christians in the Holy Land, fell to the Muslims.


[See Latin Empire 1214 AD]


The Crusader States


     Altogether four crusader principalities, with the kingdom of Jerusalem

dominant, had been established along the eastern Mediterranean coast. By the

time Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187, however, only isolated pockets of

Christians remained surrounded by hostile Muslims. The crusader states were

able to survive only by reason of frequent transfusions of strength from

Europe in the form of supplies and manpower.


     The crusader states were defended by three semi-monastic military orders:

the Templars, or Knights of the Temple, so called because their first

headquarters was on the site of the old Temple of Jerusalem; the Hospitalers,

or Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, who were founded originally to care for

the sick and wounded; and the Teutonic Knights, exclusively a German order.

Combining monasticism and militarism, these orders had as their aims the

protection of all pilgrims and perpetual war against the Muslims.


The Crusades Evaluated


     Even though the crusades failed to achieve their specific objective

permanently, they cannot be written off as mere adventures. On the contrary,

their influence extended over a much wider geographical field than just the

Holy Land. Much of the crusading fervor carried over to the fight against the

Muslims in Spain and the Slavs in eastern Europe. Politically the crusades

weakened the Byzantine Empire and accelerated its fall (see ch. 7). Although

the early crusades strengthened the moral leadership of the papacy in Europe,

the bad luck of the later crusades, together with the preaching of crusades

against Christian heretics and political opponents, weakened both the

crusading ideal and respect for the papacy.


     Contact with the East widened the scope of the Europeans, ended their

isolation, and exposed them to an admirable civilization. Although it is easy

to exaggerate the economic effects of the crusades, they did influence the

reopening of the eastern Mediterranean to Western commerce, which itself had

an effect on the rise of cities and the emergence of a money economy in the



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