The Crusades were a series of military campaigns first inaugurated and sanctioned by the papacy that were undertaken between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Originally, the Crusades were Christian Holy Wars to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims, then to defend Christian-held Jerusalem, but some were directed against other targets, such as the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars of southern France, the Fourth Crusade which conquered Orthodox Christian Constantinople, and Crusades targeting Jews, non-conformist Christians, and un-Christianized populations living in Europe. Initially, the Crusades had the blessing of both the Western (Catholic) Church under the Pope and of the Eastern Orthodox Church under the Byzantine Emperor. However, the Emperors withdrew their support as their own subjects became targets of Crusading efforts to root out what they saw as Christian heresy or paganism. Killing Muslims, Jews, or heretics was regarded as an act of merit, rewarded by paradise, and forced conversion was also widespread, although many chose death to renunciation of faith.
Few contemporary Muslim accounts exist of the crusades, which were regarded as minor “skirmishes” inflicting “pinpricks on the fringes of the Islamic world” (Fletcher: 84). Crusader principalities were sometimes even regarded as strategically useful, providing a buffer zone between the rival sultanates of Egypt and Damascus. In contrast, the Crusades had profound and lasting effect on medieval Europe. From the Christian perspective until recent times, the Crusades were seen as wars of liberation, not aggression, aimed at restoring Christian sovereignty over the Holy Land. The Crusades initially elevated the authority of the papacy as the authoritative spiritual and temporal power in Europe prior to the emergence of nation-states. Yet with the descent of the Crusades into indiscriminate slaughter of innocents and aggression against fellow Christians, the moral authority of the papacy and unity of Christendom in Europe suffered.
The Crusades also engendered an appreciation of advanced Muslim culture among parochial western Christians. Similarly, the Muslim ruler Saladin greatly respected the English king, Richard Cœur de Lion and chivalric conventions were often upheld on the battlefield following victory or defeat. In the twentieth century, the term “crusade” was revived by some Muslims as a description of what they regard as a Christian-Jewish campaign to destroy the Muslim world. Attacks on Muslim states by majority-Christian Western powers in the early twenty-first century have been compared to the Crusades. Both are depicted as wars of aggression. However, irrespective of how they were perceived by either side at the time they occurred, the Crusades represent today a deeply regrettable historical episode undermining the role of religion as a force for peace, which continues to create barriers to Christian-Muslim understanding and friendship.
The origins of the crusades lie in developments in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, as well as the deteriorating situation of the Byzantine Empire in the east. The breakdown of the Carolingian Empire in the later ninth century, combined with the relative stabilization of local European borders after the Christianization of the Vikings, Slavs, and Magyars, meant that there was an entire class of warriors who now had very little to do but fight amongst themselves and terrorize the peasant population. The Church tried to stem this violence with the Peace and Truce of God movements, which was somewhat successful, but trained warriors always sought an outlet for their violence. The Peace and Truce of God movement assembled knights in the sight of holy relics, before which clergy exhorted them to keep the peace or to face divine wrath, or even excommunication. Excommunication, at a time when it was almost universally held that the Church controlled spiritual destiny, was a fearful weapon. One later outlet was the Reconquista in Spain and Portugal, which at times occupied Iberian knights and some mercenaries from elsewhere in Europe in the fight against the Muslim Moors. Although much of the Reconquista predated the invention of the Crusader concept, later myths, such as the chronicles of El Cid, retroactively transformed him and other heroes into Crusaders, even though they had not been bound by the Crusader oath and had sometimes served Muslim as well as Christian rulers. Certainly, they had not all shared the hostility and animosity towards Islam that many Crusaders expressed.
The Crusades were in part an outlet for an intense religious piety which rose up in the late eleventh century among the lay public. This was due in part to the Investiture Controversy, which had started around 1075, and was still on-going during the First Crusade. This was a dispute between the secular rulers and the Papacy about who had the right to appoint church officials. A lot of money was tied up with Church property and governance so kings could sell bishoprics to the highest bidder. Even laymen were appointed to church benefits. At the root of the conflict was the issue of supremacy—was the Church above the state, or were the secular rulers above the Church. The Pope claims absolute spiritual and temporal authority, based on the so-called Donation of Constantine but many kings believed that they ruled by divine right, that they did not derive their authority from the Pope. Christendom had been greatly affected by the Investiture Controversy; as both sides tried to marshal public opinion in their favor, people became personally engaged in a dramatic religious controversy. The result was an awakening of intense Christian piety and public interest in religious affairs. This was further strengthened by religious propaganda, advocating Just War in order to retake the Holy Land, which included Jerusalem (where Christians believe that the death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven of Jesus took place) and Antioch (the first Christian city), from the Muslims. Antioch became the first conquest. All of this eventually manifested in the overwhelming popular support for the First Crusade, and the religious vitality of the twelfth century.
This background in the Christian West must be matched with that in the Muslim East. Muslim presence in the Holy Land goes back to the initial Arab conquest of Palestine in the seventh century. This did not interfere much with pilgrimage to Christian holy sites or the security of monasteries and Christian communities in the Holy Land of Christendom, and western Europeans were not much concerned with the loss of far-away Jerusalem when, in the ensuing decades and centuries, they were themselves faced with invasions by Muslims and other hostile non-Christians such as the Vikings and Magyars. However, the Muslim armies’ successes were putting strong pressure on the Byzantine Empire.
A turning point in western attitudes towards the east came in the year 1009, when the Fatimid caliph of Cairo, al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, had the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem destroyed. Previous Fatimid rulers had appointed Christians to high posts and co-operated with them. Hakim reversed this policy and persecuted them. From 1000, he is considered to have been mentally unstable. This was also a time when Christian thought was that, after a thousand years, Jesus would return, and many Jews were also expecting the Messiah. Hakim is said to have claimed to be “the divine incarnation expected one thousand years after Jesus.” One day he forced Christians to convert and destroyed their churches, the next day he “authorized” them “to return to their religion.” In 1039 Hakim’s successor permitted the Byzantine Empire to rebuild the Holy Sepulchre. Pilgrimages were allowed to the Holy Lands before and after the Sepulchre was rebuilt, but for a time pilgrims were captured and some of the clergy were killed. The Muslim conquerors eventually realized that the wealth of Jerusalem came from the pilgrims; with this realization the persecution of pilgrims stopped. However, the damage was already done, and the violence of the Seljuk Turks became part of the concern that spread the passion for the Crusades later in the century.
The immediate cause of the First Crusade was Alexius I’s appeal to Pope Urban II for mercenaries to help him resist Muslim advances into territory of the Byzantine Empire. In 1071, at the Battle of Manzikert, the Byzantine Empire had been defeated, and this defeat led to the loss of all but the coast lands of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Although the East-West Schism was brewing between the Catholic Western church and the Greek Orthodox Eastern church, Alexius I expected some help from a fellow Christian. However, the response was much larger, and less helpful, than Alexius I desired, as the Pope called for a large invasion force to not merely defend the Byzantine Empire but also retake Jerusalem.
When the First Crusade was preached in 1095, the Christian princes of northern Iberia had been fighting their way out of the mountains of Galicia and Asturias, the Basque Country and Navarre, with increasing success, for about a hundred years. The fall of Moorish Toledo to the Kingdom of León in 1085, was a major victory, but the turning points of the Reconquista still lay in the future. The disunity of the Muslim emirs was an essential factor, and the Christians, whose wives remained safely behind, were hard to beat: they knew nothing except fighting, they had no gardens or libraries to defend, and they worked their way forward through alien territory populated by infidels, where the Christian fighters felt they could afford to wreak havoc. All these factors were soon to be replayed in the fighting grounds of the East. Spanish historians have traditionally seen the Reconquista as the molding force in the Castilian character, with its sense that the highest good was to die fighting for the Christian cause of one’s country. Ironically, when the Moors first invaded Spain a Christian nobleman, Count Julian, had helped them defeat the Visigoth King, Roderick (who had raped his daughter).
While the Reconquista was the most prominent example of Christian war against Muslim conquests, it is not the only such example. The Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard had conquered the “toe of Italy,” Calabria, in 1057, and was holding what had traditionally been Byzantine territory against the Muslims of Sicily. The maritime states of Pisa, Genoa, and Catalonia were all actively fighting Islamic strongholds in Majorca and Sardinia, freeing the coasts of Italy and Catalonia from Muslim raids. Much earlier, of course, the Christian homelands of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, and so on had been conquered by Muslim armies. This long history of losing territories to a religious enemy, as well as a powerful pincer movement on all of Western Europe, created a powerful motive to respond to Byzantine emperor Alexius I’s call for holy war to defend Christendom, and to recapture the lost lands, starting at the most important one of all, Jerusalem itself.
The papacy of Pope Gregory VII had struggled with reservations about the doctrinal validity of a holy war and the shedding of blood for the Lord and had resolved the question in favor of justified violence. More importantly to the Pope, the Christians who made pilgrimages to the Holy Land were being persecuted. Actions against Arians and other heretics offered historical precedents in a society where violence against unbelievers, and indeed against other Christians, was acceptable and common. Saint Augustine of Hippo, Gregory’s intellectual model, had justified the use of force in the service of Christ in The City of God, and a Christian “just war” might enhance the wider standing of an aggressively ambitious leader of Europe, as Gregory saw himself. The northerners would be cemented to Rome and their troublesome knights could see the only kind of action that suited them. Previous attempts by the church to stem such violence, such as the concept of the “Peace of God,” were not as successful as hoped. To the south of Rome, Normans were showing how such energies might be unleashed against both Arabs (in Sicily) and Byzantines (on the mainland). A Latin hegemony in the Levant would provide leverage in resolving the Papacy’s claims of supremacy over the Patriarch of Constantinople, which had resulted in the Great Schism of 1054, a rift that might yet be resolved through the force of Frankish arms.
In the Byzantine homelands, the Eastern Emperor’s weakness was revealed by the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, which reduced the Empire’s Asian territory to a region in western Anatolia and around Constantinople. A sure sign of Byzantine desperation was the appeal of Alexius I Comnenus to his enemy the Pope for aid. But Gregory was occupied with the Investiture Controversy and could not call on the German emperor and the crusade never took shape.
For Gregory’s more moderate successor Pope Urban II, a crusade would serve to reunite Christendom, bolster the Papacy, and perhaps bring the East under his control. The disaffected Germans and the Normans were not to be counted on, but the heart and backbone of a crusade could be found in Urban’s own homeland among the northern French.
On a popular level, the first crusades unleashed a wave of impassioned, personally felt pious fury that was expressed in the massacres of Jews that accompanied the movement of mobs through Europe, as well as the violent treatment of “schismatic” Orthodox Christians of the east. The violence against the Orthodox Christians culminated in the sack of Constantinople in 1204, in which most of the Crusading armies took part despite the fact that originally the Crusades had been a joint venture with the Emperor. Members of the first Crusade had been obliged (although some avoided this) to pledge allegiance to the Byzantine Emperor, who, technically, had sovereignty over the principalities they acquired in what was known as Outremer (Across the Seas).
The thirteenth century crusades never expressed such a popular fever, and after Acre fell for the last time in 1291, and after the extermination of the Occitan Cathars in the Albigensian Crusade, the crusading ideal became devalued by Papal justifications of political and territorial aggressions within Catholic Europe.
The last crusading order of knights to hold territory were the Knights Hospitaller. After the final fall of Acre they took control of the island of Rhodes, and in the sixteenth century were driven to Malta. These last crusaders were finally unseated by Napoleon in 1798.
The major crusades
A traditional numbering scheme for the crusades yields nine during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, as well as other smaller crusades that are mostly contemporaneous and unnumbered. There were frequent “minor” crusades throughout this period, not only in Palestine but also in the Iberian Peninsula and central Europe, against not only Muslims, but also Christian heretics and personal enemies of the Papacy or other powerful monarchs. Such “crusades” continued into the sixteenth century, until the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation when the political and religious climate of Europe was significantly different than that of the Middle Ages.
The first Crusade was organized after Byzantine emperor Alexius I called for help defending his empire against the Seljuks. In 1095, at the Council of Clermont Pope Urban II called upon all Christians to join a war against the Turks, a war which would count as full penance. Crusader armies managed to defeat two substantial Turkish forces at Dorylaeum and at Antioch, finally marching to Jerusalem with only a fraction of their original forces. In 1099, they took Jerusalem by assault and massacred the population. As a result of the First Crusade, several small Crusader states were created, notably the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The first Crusader to govern the city was Godfrey de Bouillion. He did not style himself “king” on the basis that no man should wear a crown in the city where Jesus had “worn thorns,” but his successors did not hesitate to take the royal title (Howarth: 41). Following this crusade there was a second, unsuccessful wave of crusaders, the Crusade of 1101. Before the official army set out, Peter the Hermit took up the call and assembled an undisciplined peoples’ army that started its mission by attacking Jews at home, then set off for Jerusalem. On the way, they burnt houses and churches, killing almost indiscriminately. A few reached and briefly took the city of Nicea but this Peoples’ Crusade collapsed after six months.
After a period of relative peace, in which Christians and Muslims co-existed in the Holy Land, Bernard of Clairvaux preached a new crusade when the town of Edessa was conquered by the Turks. French and German armies under Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany, marched to Asia Minor in 1147, but failed to accomplish any major successes, and indeed endangered the survival of the Crusader states with a foolish attack on Damascus. By 1149, both leaders had returned to their countries without any result. King Baldwin of Jerusalem (1177-1186) entered several peace treaties with Saladin. Even the notorious Assassins tried to ally themselves with the Christians against Egypt (Howarth: 128). Internal rivalry emerged within Outremer between supporters of King Baldwin, who favored peace with their Muslim neighbors and supporters of such men as Reynald de Chatillon, who opposed any truces with “infidels” and saw war as the Christian duty. Saladin was happy to enter temporary truces with the Christians, who formed a buffer between himself and his Seljuk rivals further North.
Muslims recapture Jerusalem
In 1187, Saladin recaptured Jerusalem. He acted with great clemency to the inhabitants of the city. In response Pope Gregory VIII called for a crusade, which was led by several of Europe’s most important leaders: Philip II of France, Richard I of England, and Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick drowned in Cilicia in 1190, leaving an unstable alliance between the English and the French. Philip left in 1191, after the Crusaders had recaptured Acre from the Muslims. The Crusader army headed down the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. They defeated the Muslims near Arsuf and were in sight of Jerusalem. However, the inability of the Crusaders to thrive in the locale due to inadequate food and water resulted in an empty victory. They withdrew without capturing a city they knew they could not defend. Richard left the following year after establishing a 5-year truce between Saladin and what was left of Outremer. On Richard’s way home, his ship was wrecked and he ended up in Austria. In Austria his enemy, Duke Leopold, captured him, delivered him to Frederick’s son Henry VI and Richard was held for, literally, a king’s ransom. By 1197, Henry felt himself ready for a Crusade, but he died in the same year of malaria.
Jerusalem having fallen back into Muslim hands a decade earlier, the Fourth Crusade was initiated in 1202, by Pope Innocent III, with the intention of invading the Holy Land through Egypt. The Venetians, under Doge Enrico Dandolo, gained control of this crusade and diverted it, first to the Christian city of Zara, then to Constantinople where they attempted to place a Byzantine exile on the throne. After a series of misunderstandings and outbreaks of violence, the city was sacked in 1204.
The Albigensian Crusade was launched in 1209, to eliminate the heretical Cathars of southern France. It was a decades-long struggle that had as much to do with the concerns of northern France to extend its control southwards as it did with heresy. In the end, both the Cathars and the independence of southern France were exterminated.
The Children’s Crusade of 1212 appears to have been initiated by the prophetic visions of a boy called Stephen of Cloyes. According to uncertain evidence an outburst of enthusiasm led a gathering of children in France and Germany to march to the Holy Land to deliver Jerusalem. Although not sanctioned by Pope Innocent III, the child Crusaders undertook the long journey. Tragically, the children ultimately were either sold as slaves or died of hunger, disease, and exhaustion during the journey.
In 1215, the Fourth Council of the Lateran formulated yet another plan for the recovery of the Holy Land. A crusading force from Hungary, Austria, and Bavaria achieved a remarkable feat in the capture of Damietta in Egypt in 1219, but under the urgent insistence of the papal legate, Pelagius, they proceeded to a foolhardy attack on Cairo, and an inundation of the Nile compelled them to choose between surrender and destruction.
In 1228, Emperor Frederick II set sail from Brindisi for Syria, though laden with the papal excommunication. Through diplomacy he achieved unexpected success, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem being delivered to the Crusaders for a period of ten years. This was the first major crusade not initiated by the Papacy, a trend that was to continue for the rest of the century. Francis of Assissi had negotiated a similar treaty during the fifth crusades but Pelagius had rejected this, refusing to deal with infidels. Ironically, an excommunicated Christian was now King of Jerusalem.
The papal interests represented by the Templars brought on a conflict with Egypt in 1243, and in the following year a Khwarezmian force summoned by the latter stormed Jerusalem. Although this provoked no widespread outrage in Europe as the fall of Jerusalem, in 1187, had done, Louis IX of France organized a crusade against Egypt from 1248 to 1254, leaving from the newly constructed port of Aigues-Mortes in southern France. It was a failure and Louis spent much of the crusade living at the court of the Crusader kingdom in Acre. In the midst of this crusade was the first Shepherds’ Crusade in 1251.
The eighth Crusade was organized by Louis IX in 1270, again sailing from Aigues-Mortes, initially to come to the aid of the remnants of the Crusader states in Syria. However, the crusade was diverted to Tunis, where Louis spent only two months before dying. The Eighth Crusade is sometimes counted as the Seventh, if the Fifth and Sixth Crusades are counted as a single crusade. The Ninth Crusade is sometimes also counted as part of the Eighth.
The future Edward I of England undertook another expedition in 1271, after having accompanied Louis on the Eighth Crusade. He accomplished very little in Syria and retired the following year after a truce. With the fall of Principality of Antioch (1268), Tripoli (1289), and Acre (1291) the last traces of the Christian rule in Syria disappeared.
Crusades in Baltic and Central Europe
The Crusades in the Baltic Sea area and in Central Europe were efforts by (mostly German) Christians to subjugate and convert the peoples of these areas to Christianity. These Crusades ranged from the twelfth century, contemporaneous with the Second Crusade, to the sixteenth century.
Between 1232 and 1234, there was a crusade against the Stedingers. This crusade was special, because the Stedingers were no heathens or heretics, but fellow Roman Catholics. They were free Frisian farmers who resented attempts of the count of Oldenburg and the archbishop of Bremen-Hamburg to make an end to their freedoms. The archbishop excommunicated them and the Pope declared a crusade in 1232. The Stedingers were defeated in 1234.
The Crusades had an enormous influence on the European Middle Ages. The campaigns have traditionally been regarded as heroic adventures, though the mass enthusiasm of common people was largely expended in the First Crusade, from which so few of their class returned. Today, the “Saracen” adversary is crystallized in the lone figure of Saladin; his adversary Richard the Lionheart is, in the English-speaking world, the archetypal crusader king, while Frederick Barbarossa and Louis IX fill the same symbolic niche in German and French culture. Even in contemporary areas, the crusades and their leaders were romanticized in popular literature; the Chanson d’Antioche was a chanson de geste dealing with the First Crusade, and the Song of Roland, dealing with the era of the similarly romanticized Charlemagne, was directly influenced by the experience of the crusades, going so far as to replace Charlemagne’s historic Basque opponents with Muslims. A popular theme for troubadours was the knight winning the love of his lady by going on crusade in the east.
Although Europe had been exposed to Islamic culture for centuries through contacts in Iberian Peninsula and Sicily, much Islamic thought, such as science, medicine, and architecture, was transferred to the west during the crusades. The military experiences of the crusades also had their effects in Europe. The need to raise, transport and supply large armies led to a flourishing of trade throughout Europe. Roads largely unused since the days of Rome saw significant increases in traffic as local merchants began to expand their horizons. This was not only because the Crusades “prepared” Europe for travel, but rather that many wanted to travel after being reacquainted with the products of the Middle East. This also contributed to the Renaissance in Italy, as various Italian city-states had important and profitable trading colonies in the crusader states, both in the Holy Land and later in captured Byzantine territory. Despite the ultimate defeat in the Middle East, the Crusaders regained the Iberian Peninsula permanently and slowed down the military expansion of Islam.
The impact of the Crusades on the western Church, the institution of the papacy, and a unified Christian Europe is among the campaigns’ most important legacies. During the era of the primitive church, many Christians had been pacifist, referring to Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Augustine of Hippo and others later provided theological rationale for just wars, that violence was not intrinsically evil if used with a good intent (Ridley-Smith, 2005: xxx). It was also argued that what Jesus willed for the world was a “political system” ruled by him through the Church, which would require defense. Likewise, God had issued directives for violence and warfare repeatedly in the Old Testament.
The Crusades, thus, were preeminently religiously motivated, first conceived and inaugurated under a papal authority, prior to the establishment of autonomous nation-states in western Europe. The initial rationale, reclaiming Jerusalem from an antagonistic Muslim occupation that reversed traditional access and tolerance of Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land had a degree of justification. But the original campaign to regain sovereignty for Christian pilgrims soon descended into religious warfare lasting for two and a half centuries. The widespread pillaging, rape, and murder of not only Muslims but other vulnerable minorities, ostensibly with papal sanction, severely undermined the moral authority of the papacy. By the fourteenth century the old concept of a unified Christendom was fragmented; the development of centralized secular bureaucracies (the foundation of the modern nation-state) in France, England, Burgundy, Portugal, Castile, and Aragon advanced increasingly independent of papal oversight; and humanistic intellectual pursuits took root that would flower in the Italian Renaissance.
The Crusades impact on Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Jews
The crusades had import but localized effects upon the Islamic world, where the equivalents of “Franks” and “Crusaders” remained expressions of disdain. Muslims traditionally celebrate Saladin, the Kurdish warrior, as a hero against the Crusaders. In the twenty-first century, some in the Arab world, such as the Arab independence movement and Pan-Islamism movement, continue to call Western involvement in the Middle East a “crusade.” The Crusades are now widely regarded by the Islamic world as cruel and savage onslaughts by European Christians, although at the time they appear to have been seen as less significant since they occurred during internal rivalry between competing dynasties, and their principalities at times served a useful function as a buffer-zone between those dynasties.
Like Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians also see the Crusades, particularly the sack of Constantinople in 1204, as attacks by the barbarian West. Many relics and artifacts taken from Constantinople are still in Roman Catholic hands, in the Vatican and elsewhere. Countries of Central Europe, despite the fact that formally they also belonged to Western Christianity, were the most skeptical about the idea of Crusades. Many cities in Hungary were sacked by passing bands of Crusaders. Later on, Poland and Hungary were themselves subject to conquest from the Crusaders (see Teutonic Order), and therefore championed the notion that non-Christians have the right to live in peace and have property rights to their lands.
The Crusaders’ atrocities against Jews in the German and Hungarian towns, later also in those of France and England, and in the massacres of non-combatants in Palestine and Syria have become a significant part of the history of anti-Semitism, although no Crusade was ever officially declared against Jews. It was sometimes said that in comparison with Muslims, Jews were more worthy of extermination since they had “killed God’s son.” These attacks left behind centuries of ill will on both sides. The social position of the Jews in western Europe was distinctly worsened, and legal restrictions increased during and after the Crusades. They prepared the way for the anti-Jewish legislation of Pope Innocent III and formed the turning-point in medieval anti-Semitism