The crusades: Step by step through a spectacular mess

medieval miniature painting of the Siege of An...

Medieval miniature painting of the Siege of Antioch - First Crusade

After lecturing the other day to Bethel undergrads on the feudal system (the defining reality of “those who worked”), and before outlining the idea of sacramentality and the sacraments in the Middle Ages (a central notion and rituals for “those who prayed”), I laid out what many of “those who fought” were doing between the 11th and 15th centuries.

They were going on Crusades.

That is, they were seeking to reclaim the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land in general for Christendom.

[Again, sources for this part of the lecture include several lectures from the Teaching Company, e.g.,]

Jerusalem was the center of the world for medieval Christians—and for hundreds of years, Christians had been making pilgrimages there. Yet since the 7th century, Jerusalem and the surrounding area had been controlled by the Muslims, whose massive growth from the 7th through the 11th century came at least partially at the expense of formerly Christian territories.

As the Muslim world expanded, its reach moved from the Middle East through North Africa and into Spain. So by the end of the 11th century, Christians, Jews, and Muslims had been living side-by-side in the area that we would call the Holy Land. And they lived together peacefully, for the most part.

Yet the first rumblings of the Crusades had already been felt in the 10th century.

The first mini-Crusade was known as the Reconquista, or literally reconquest, of Muslim Spain.

Then, in the middle of the 11th century, the borders of Byzantium—that is the Eastern half of the old Roman Empire—started to be overrun by Turks, many of whom had converted to Islam in the 10th century.

The fact that Christian territories were being lost led Eastern leaders to appeal for help from their Christian brethren in the West. So when Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade at Clermont, France in 1095, he pressed the ideal of a united Roman Empire, which had been alive pretty much ever since the Western empire had fallen to the Germanic tribes way back in the 5th century and West and East had split.

Essentially, Urban was calling on the citizens of what had been the western half of the empire to come to the aid of the citizens of what had been the eastern half of the empire—with the hope that this might result in some sort of symbolic or literal reunification.

When he called for the First Crusade, Urban announced two goals: The first was to liberate Christians living in those territories that had been conquered by invading Turks; the second was to free Jerusalem, the holiest of cities, from Muslim rule.

And very soon after that fateful call to arms, a combination of religious fervor, political idealism, and opportunism produced a willing body of warriors ready to travel to Jerusalem. It is estimated that the fighting force of the First Crusade numbered around 50,000.

What motivated those who joined the First Crusade? It would seem many went for religious reasons. Yet for a long time, many medieval scholars felt that it was really another reason that motivated most crusaders. This goes back to the system of primogeniture we’ve talked about: For those younger sons not thrilled with entering religious life, a campaign like the Crusade presented an opportunity to acquire wealth, status, and property through that time-tested method of warfare and pillage. And in fact as the Crusades wore on, many young noblemen did gain properties, and titles, and stature they never could have attained if they had stayed back in Europe.

Yet heading out on Crusade was also a very expensive, risk-filled undertaking, and so in the majority of circumstances a heart-felt religious devotion seems to have been the underlying motivation. Especially important was the fact that when he preached the Crusade, Pope Urban also granted those who participated a blanket amnesty for all their sins, including any they incurred while on Crusade and those that they had incurred in their lifetimes before setting out for the Middle East. For a citizen of the medieval world, to whom hell and purgatory loomed quite large, this was, indeed, an attractive incentive.

The depth of feeling that prodded many to go on Crusade is nowhere more visible than in the case of what has come to be called the Peasants’ Crusade, which actually set off for Jerusalem earlier than any other group.

The Peasants’ Crusade was an unofficial Crusade led by a man named Peter the Hermit. It was made up of a group of commoners who headed overland across Europe toward the Middle East.

Peter the Hermit and his followers apparently made it as far as Anatolia, where most of his band were either slaughtered or sold into slavery. Other armed militias, however, made it all the way to the city of Jerusalem, taking several cities along the way. From the point of view of Western Christendom, the First Crusade was a success.

And for a time, the Crusaders set up a new society—one that they called Outremer, which means “over the sea.” It consisted of four Crusader states: the county of Tripoli and the county of Edessa, the principality of Antioch, and the kingdom of Jerusalem. All four of these were ruled over by Europeans until 1291.

Initially, they simply tried to drive non-Christians out of territories considered holy and part of a new Latin Christendom. But they soon discovered they had nowhere near enough Europeans living in these lands to make this a reality. Who was going to work the fields? From whom would they buy goods at the market if Jewish and Muslim traders were forbidden in Christian territory?

What the Crusaders discovered was that they were going to have to adopt a policy of accommodation if the settlement in Outremer was going to survive. In fact, many of their policies were similar to the tolerant policies of the Muslims when they had controlled Jerusalem.

Crusading orders (Knights Templar, Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights)

The Outremer experiment brought with it a surge in the number of pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem. Obviously, such a long journey required a significant outlay of expenses, and required also that pilgrims carry a significant amount of money with them. This, as you might guess, made them attractive targets for bandits. Enter an organization that has been the subject of much wildly imaginative discussion in books and movies lately: the Knights Templar.

The Templars were an utterly new kind of knight, in that they were also monks. Their stated goal was to offer protection to pilgrims who were traveling to Jerusalem. They did this not only by serving as a kind of bodyguard for those pilgrims passing through Palestine, but also by cleverly coming up with a way to remove the need for pilgrims to carry money and other valuables with them. The idea was, essentially, the birth of banking. A pilgrim to the Holy Land deposited their money with the Templars before their trip and, through the use of a code on a piece of vellum, withdrew it at their destination.

One of the most important religious figures of the day, Bernard of Clairvaux—a Cistercian monk and abbot—legitimized the Templars by writing rules for their order, and they took as their uniform the white robe of the Cistercians with a red cross on the front.

The Templars were not the only new order of knights to be created as a result of the Crusades. Two other groups—the Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights—are worth mentioning. Like the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller wanted to offer assistance to pilgrims who had traveled to the Holy Land. The Hospitallers cared for those who became ill while in Jerusalem. They set up the massive 2,000-bed Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem, as well as other hospitals. And they served the ill in a way similar to many other monastic hospitals in Europe: They venerated poverty, subjecting themselves to the extremes of an impoverished life—but in contrast, they treated all of the sick in their hospitals, no matter their rank, as if they were great lords or noblemen.

Within 50 years of their founding, the Knights Hospitaller, like the Knights Templar, had become a military order of monk knights with a division of ranks—those who tended to the ill in the hospital, and those who fought on behalf of the order. While the Templars wore a white tunic with a red cross, the Knights Hospitaller were easily identified by their black tunics and white crosses.

The last of the new orders of knighthood to result from the Crusades were the Teutonic Knights. This order was established later than the Templars and the Hospitallers—closer to the end of the 12th century—but again, like the other two orders, the impetus for their existence came from a desire to help those in need. In this case, the Teutonic Knights set themselves the task of caring specifically for injured Crusaders. They are called the Teutonic Knights because most of the original members were nobles from the area of Europe that roughly corresponds to modern Germany and Austria—and thus, they are distinct from the mass of Crusaders who were usually referred to as Franks because their ranks were so dominated by the French.

The Teutonic Knights wore white tunics with black crosses, and compared to the Templars and Hospitallers their order was rather small.

The story of these orders of “helping knights” is all very romantic and chivalrous. However, throughout the Crusading period, groups considered outside the mainstream of Western Christianity but living within the bonds of Europe also became the victims of Crusading fervor—non-Christians in Scandinavia; heretics, such as the Cathars in France; and perhaps most significantly, the Jews.

Peter the Hermit’s decision to march through the Rhineland on his way to the Holy Land was a deliberate one, and along the way his militia slaughtered huge numbers of Jews living in this area. Other groups of Crusaders engaged in similar behavior, and there are many chronicle accounts—most of them certainly based on eye-witness testimony—that relate in excruciating detail the vicious slaughter of entire Jewish communities. Those that were not killed were forcibly baptized.

It wasn’t long before many of the Crusader states, starting with Edessa, were retaken by local forces, and new Crusades needed to be declared with the goal of re-taking, once again, these locations for Christendom.

How many Crusades were there? There’s some debate about this, because defining the nature of a Crusade gets a little more difficult as we head toward the early modern period. For example, some Crusades, like the Fourth, never even made it to the Holy Land—and others, like that against the Cathars in France, never even intended to head toward Jerusalem. If we define Crusade as a military effort to bring portions of the Middle East—particularly Jerusalem—under Christian control, then we can identify roughly eight or nine within the medieval period.

The Second Crusade and Bernard of Clairvaux

The Crusading kingdoms began their decline in 1144, when an Arab leader named Zengi retook Edessa. The Second Crusade was specifically preached in order to retake Edessa, and one of its most vocal proponents was Bernard of Clairvaux, the famed Cistercian abbot who had been such a supporter of the Knights Templar. The leaders of this expedition included both the king of France and the Holy Roman Emperor—but the group found that they weren’t having any luck, and essentially turned around and headed home.

The Third Crusade: Saladin and Richard the Lion-hearted

After this, the Arabs took control of Egypt, a key strategic position for any force wishing to hold power in the Middle East. Their Muslim leader was the great Saladin. In 1187, at the Battle of Hattin, Saladin defeated the Christian military forces at Jerusalem and retook the city.

After his capture of the city of Jerusalem, Saladin mercifully spared most of the Christian inhabitants of the city, at a time when it would be much more common to put them all to the sword, as the Crusaders had done to the Turks when they took Antioch on the First Crusade. Saladin allowed all those who could to buy their freedom—and then he allowed thousands of others who could not afford to pay the ransom to be freed.

Soon after the Battle of Hattin, the Third Crusade was called, involving the heavy hitters King Phillip II of France, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and King Richard the Lionheart of England.

After Barbarossa died and Phillip returned home, Richard remained as leader of the fight for Outremer. Stories of the mutually chivalrous behavior of Saladin and Richard were popular from Europe to the Middle East, and contemporary accounts relate the great respect that each man had for the other and his abilities.

For example, when Richard became ill, Saladin offered the use of his personal physician, should the English king have need. When Richard lost his horse, Saladin sent him two of his own. For his part, Richard proposed attempting to settle the conflict by marrying his sister to Saladin’s brother, but nothing came of this proposal—although they did sign a tentative truce. The gains Richard had made were a setback for the Muslim cause, but Jerusalem, the jewel in the crown, had not been recovered—so it was only a matter of time before another Crusade was called.

Richard and Saladin even managed to forge an agreement to let Christians visit the Holy Lands without being hassled. But making deals with Muslims was, to many in Europe, not the point of crusading. Richard’s stock dropped, and on his way home he was set upon and captured by soldiers of his former ally Frederick Barbarossa’s son—and was imprisoned and held in exchange for the payment of literally a “king’s ransom”—100,000 pounds, which nearly bankrupted England.

From this point on, the activity of crusading seems to lose much of its focus. The Fourth Crusade was called by Pope Innocent III in the early 13th century, with the goal of, once again, retaking the Holy Land—but this Crusade never even made it near Jerusalem.

The sack of Constantinople

One band of Crusaders did make it to Constantinople, and in 1204, the crusading camp, after having been stationed outside the city walls for some time, breached those walls, entered the city, and sacked it—pillaging over a period of three days. The justification for this on the part of some was that the Byzantine, or Eastern Orthodox, church was not the true church—it had not been since the Great Schism of 1054, when the patriarch of the Eastern Church and the papal representatives of the Western Church had excommunicated one another.

So, on the Fourth Crusade it was the Byzantines—those whose perceived need for assistance had, in fact, sparked the first Crusade—who were on the receiving end of the righteous militarism of Western Christendom. From there, it was just a small step to direct that righteousness toward other groups closer to home.

This is exactly what happened in 1208, the year of the so-called Albigensian Crusade. For many years, a heresy—known most commonly as Catharism—had been growing in the area of what is today southwestern France. The Cathars were dualists, believing that the material world was evil and only spiritual things were good. Worse, since all things of the flesh were evil, then Christ could not possibly have become incarnate. They did consider themselves Christians, but a very strange sort of Christians in that they were vehemently opposed to attaching any sort of significance to the crucifixion. Many, in fact, denied that it had even happened.

After a series of attempts to persuade local leaders to deal with the heresy, Pope Innocent III preached a Crusade against the Cathars, or Albigensians. The fighting that followed for the next 20 years or so was horrifically violent and seemingly arbitrary, as many non-Cathars were caught up in the frenzy of Albigensian persecution and killed too.

The horrors of the Albigensian Crusade were repeated in a different key in the year 1212, when spontaneously, it seems, two separate groups of children rallied thousands of other children to their sides and set off to reclaim Jerusalem for Christendom.

These children believed was that because they were innocents, they would have more success in retaking the Holy Land than would mature warriors, who had long lives of sinning behind them. Some scholars now believe that the number of children participating has been largely exaggerated, and that a good portion of the group were actually poor adults. In any case, 7,000 to 30,000 of them headed off to liberate the Holy Land. And none of them actually made it. Most turned around and headed home early on. Some made it to Rome, where the pope released them from the vows they had sworn to take the cross. Yet some accounts tell of shiploads of young crusading pilgrims killed in wrecks, or of young girls being taken into brothels, and boys sold into slavery.

Despite all these setbacks, the crusading movement continued—with a Fifth Crusade getting underway in 1218, just a few years after the Children’s Crusade. This Fifth Crusade focused its attention again on Egypt, as this was considered the heart of the Muslim world, but it was a dismal failure, as were the next three Crusades that followed in rather quick succession.

The Sixth and Seventh Crusades (1248/1270), for example, both led by Saint Louis (Louis IX), the King of France, proved utter failures. Louis, in fact, died leading the latter and in neither came anywhere near the Holy Lands.

The end of the Crusading presence in the Holy Land came in 1291, when the last true Crusader stronghold, the city of Acre, fell to the Muslims.

Crusading zeal sprang from multiple sources. While many Crusaders did have material ambitions in mind when they set out for the Holy Land, it seems that most of the people who participated in the Crusading movement were inspired to do so by deep and sincere faith and piety.

4 responses to “The crusades: Step by step through a spectacular mess

  1. good,objective information.thanks…

  2. Thanks for your time and efforts , I was looking for this information from last 10 months , i never found this , once again , thank you verymuch.

  3. Informative post! The Crusades are a difficult subject and I felt you covered both sides fairly. I’m sharing this post with my readers.

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