The Crusades

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Typically, we think of Europe in the Middle Ages as provincial, a place where news travelled slowly and most people never went more than a few miles from where they were born. Although that was true for most people, nevertheless during the 13th century there was a brief period of astounding trans-Eurasian contact. From both directions, Europe and Asia reached out.

Background of the Crusades

By about 1000 A.D., Europe was recovering from the worst of the Dark Ages and embarking on a period of expansionism. The conversion and settlement of the Vikings and Magyars halted their raids and removed pressure from Europe. Agricultural advances increased the food supply, permitted population increase, and led to more wealth and commerce. One of the events that shaped modern Europe took place in 1066, when William of Normandy defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, the last successful invasion of Britain. Europe was even beginning to push back the boundaries of Islam. The Spanish recaptured Toledo, virtually in the center of Spain, from the Moslems in 1087. The stream of Arabic knowledge from Toledo would powerfully stimulate Western European thought. In 1091, Sicily was retaken from the Moslems.

The Crusades had less to do with the Moslems than with Roman-Byzantine rivalry. The Byzantine model had always been that each bishop, or patriarch, was independent and equal. The Roman model was that the bishop of Rome, the Pope, was supreme. An uneasy alliance kept the Church together until 1064, when the eastern Churches flatly refused to submit to the Pope. This split is called the Great Schism.

The Cluniac (Benedictine) reform was active in the Church at this time. It sought to restore discipline to the Church and free the Church from secular controls. The reform stimulated the Church in the West to be more attentive to business and provided impetus to attempts to reassert control over the Eastern Church. The ascent of Urban II, a prominent member of the Cluniac movement, to the papacy in 1088 enabled the reformers to put their agenda into action.

While Europe was recovering and expanding, and the Greek-Roman controversy was simmering, events in the Moslem world would eventually bring matters to a head. The Turks, originally from Central Asia, invaded Persia, rounded the southern end of the Caspian Sea, and smashed a Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Byzantines lost Anatolia (modern Asiatic Turkey) to the Turks, a loss that foreshadowed the eventual end of the Byzantine Empire. Anatolia was the breadbasket and population center of the Byzantine Empire; without it, the Empire would exist only at the sufferance of the Turks. The Turkish invasion also disrupted pilgrim traffic. There was a small but steady stream of pilgrims traveling to and from the Holy Land. The Moslems, who were tolerant of Christians, who respected Christ as a great prophet, and who derived commercial benefit from the pilgrims, had every reason to encourage pilgrim traffic. In popular stereotype, the interruption of the pilgrim traffic was the primary reason for the Crusades. As usual, the real reasons are more complex and a good deal more interesting.

Let the Games Begin

Pope Urban II called for a Crusade in 1095. The principal stated objective was to drive the Turks out of Anatolia. The principal hidden agenda was to heal the Great Schism on Rome's terms once and for all by rescuing the Byzantines from a grave threat and thereby obligating them. The objective of going on to reconquer the Holy Land for Christendom (as long as we're in the neighborhood) was almost an afterthought.

It took about a year to assemble the Crusaders at Constantinople in 1096-97. They were barely out of Constantinople when omens of things to come appeared. The Crusaders retook the ancient city of Nicaea, and the Byzantine emperor moved swiftly to post troops in the town to prevent the Crusaders from looting it. This action aroused intense resentment on the part of the Crusaders. Neither Crusader discipline nor Western-Byzantine relations were to improve as the Crusades wore on.

Nevertheless, the First Crusade from 1097 to 1099 achieved all its major objectives in the Holy Land. The Crusaders did not decisively defeat the Turks but mauled them severely enough to halt their expansion and provide a promising basis for future offensives. They marched into Palestine, besieged and captured Jerusalem, and indulged in wholesale massacre and plundering once they took the city. The response of the Moslem powers was surprisingly restrained. The two principal powers in the region were Egypt and the Caliph in Baghdad. Egypt's principal strategic interest was North Africa and the Mediterranean. The Caliph was principally concerned with Persia. The two parties were looking in opposite directions and possibly believed that a buffer state in between might be desirable. Palestine was not of strategic importance to the Moslem powers, and perhaps could have been held indefinitely with a little skill, tolerance, and insight. The Crusaders were not noted for these qualities.

Botched Strategy

It should come as no surprise that the Crusaders adopted precisely the wrong tactics. Their ideal strategy should have been to seek rapprochement with their neighbors and act to maintain stability in the region. Instead, believing that they could eventually overcome Islam itself, they allied themselves with every destabilizing force in the region. They assisted one Moslem ruler in attacking Damascus, despite his professed intent of later launching a jihad against the Crusaders themselves. Predictably enough, he did just that, capturing the Crusader citadel of Edessa. The loss jolted Europe, and the Second Crusade was launched in 1147. Two land armies marched down across Anatolia; one was destroyed and the other badly mauled by the Turks. The seaborne forces squabbled over strategy, besieged Damascus, ran out of water, and had to retreat. The Crusaders lost military respect in the eyes of the Turks, moderate Moslems started to doubt the wisdom of cooperating with the Crusaders, and Western Europeans blamed the Byzantines for the destruction of the armies in Anatolia.

The jihad gathered strength and the Kurdish leader Saladin eventually assumed leadership. The Crusaders in Palestine were splintered by internal strife and when one of them attacked a Moslem caravan in which Saladin's sister was traveling, the jihad began in earnest. Saladin invaded Palestine in 1187. The Crusader leaders, still squabbling, marched their army out of sound defensive positions across a wasteland, where it was routed. Saladin went on to take Jerusalem and all of Palestine except a few coastal strongholds. The consequent Third Crusade, from 1189 to 1191, is what most people picture by the term "Crusade". It was led by Richard I of England, Phillip II of France, and Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire. It's also the Crusade in which Robin Hood fought, according to legend. The Crusaders captured the port of Acre, several other ports, and secured treaty rights for pilgrims to visit Jerusalem.

The less than total success of the Third Crusade led a number of French nobles to plan a Fourth, beginning in 1199. Poorly financed, they were soon in debt to Venice and agreed to pay off the debt by capturing a port in Dalmatia (modern Adriatic coast of Croatia). Now little more than mercenaries on the Venetian payroll, they then agreed to help the Venetians install a puppet ruler on the throne of Constantinople. The puppet ruler was soon overthrown and the Crusaders stormed and pillaged Constantinople. Remember the original aim of healing the Great Schism? It was now forever out of reach. The Byzantines preferred surrender to the Turks in 1453 to seeking aid from the West. Not until the 1960's did a Pope and Greek Orthodox patriarch meet in person.

Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Meanwhile, Jerusalem was still in the hands of the Moslems. The Fifth Crusade attempted a quite different strategy. The Crusaders would capture the port of Damietta at the mouth of the Nile, bottle up Egypt's commerce, and swap the port for Jerusalem. Damietta was besieged in 1218-1219 and the sultan of Egypt finally agreed to the swap. By this time, the Crusaders, suffering from megalomania, decided to attempt the conquest of all of Egypt. They were stranded by the annual Nile flood and had to retreat, miraculously snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Frederick II of Germany had promised to lead a Crusade in 1215, finally started on the Sixth Crusade in 1227, and turned back. For this he was excommunicated. He finally landed in Palestine and in 1229, after little fighting and much negotiation, concluded a treaty that gave the Crusaders Jerusalem and all the other holy cities and a truce of ten years - more than they had achieved by all the previous failed Crusades. He was widely condemned for conducting the Crusade by negotiating rather than fighting.

With that sort of thinking, it is no surprise that the peace did not last long and that the Crusaders again lost Jerusalem in 1244. King Louis IX of France, the patron saint of France and the Saint Louis after whom the city and Louisiana are named, led the Crusade. Louis was brave in battle, kind to his friends, generous to his enemies, pious, a truly noble man, and hopelessly incompetent as a general. The events of the Seventh Crusade (1248-1254) are almost exactly a replay of the Fifth: attack Damietta, agree to trade it for Jerusalem, succumb to an attack of hubris, attempt to conquer Egypt, lose it all. A militant dynasty, the Mamelukes, came to power in Egypt and soon swept most of the Crusader strongholds remaining in Palestine.

(The Mamelukes arose from an institution that has been used at times in the East but has no counterpart in the West - a slave army. The reasoning seems to be that soldiers are bound to obedience anyway, so they might as well be slaves. Don't get the image of whips and poverty - they may have been slaves in the legal sense but were better off than most other members of their societies. Invariably, sooner or later, the slaves eventually reasoned "We're the ones with the swords. Why should we be slaves?" and staged a coup, as the Mamelukes did in Egypt.)

The Eighth and last Crusade (1270) is in some ways the most poignant. One can easily picture Louis, now in middle age, a bit bored, the chain mail a bit snug at the waist perhaps, reminiscing about his youth as a Crusader, and deciding to have one more try at it. His brother, Charles of Anjou, king of Sicily, had strategic plans of his own in the eastern Mediterranean and did not want a Crusade interfering with them. He diverted the expedition to Tunisia, where Louis died. The last Crusader cities on the mainland of Palestine fell in 1291; one small island stronghold lasted until 1303.

The End of the Crusades

With Louis' death, the Crusades died out with a whimper and not a bang. Continued military failure was a principal reason for their end. For a chronicle of military and political ineptitude, coupled with sheer hubris, they have no comparison in history. The Crusaders had victory in their grasp four times. They won the First Crusade in battle, had a trade almost in hand in the Fifth and Seventh Crusades, and negotiated a victory in the Sixth Crusade, and in the end they still managed to lose it all. Where else can we find a war that was won four times and still finally lost? Even the most ardent backers of Crusades were able to see eventually that the strategy was not working. Moreover, Europe in 1270 was a very different place than it was in 1087. Rising European prosperity and the increasing interest in internal affairs helped to lessen interest in the Crusades. The concept of crusading was also discredited by "crusades" against Christians (for example, aberrant sects like the Albigensians) or rulers who otherwise displeased the Pope.

Effects of the Crusades

Foremost among the effects of the Crusades was the final fatal weakening of the Byzantine Empire. The Crusades failed to recover Anatolia from the Turks, and the sack of Constantinople in 1204 destroyed Byzantium as a first rate power. Henceforth, it would exist only as a convenience to the Turks. Initially it served as a buffer state against the Turks. By the late 1300's the Byzantines were encouraging the Turks to invade the Balkans to create a buffer to protect the Byzantines from rival Europeans. For a while longer Byzantium was useful to the Turks as a point of contact with the West; when it had outlived its usefulness, they took it in 1453.

Perhaps the most significant effect of the Crusades was a vast increase in cultural horizons for many Europeans. For every European who went on a Crusade (let alone the minuscule fraction who returned) there were hundreds who knew someone who had gone, or who had seen the Crusaders march by. Palestine was no longer a quasi-mythical place that people knew only from Bible readings in church; it was a real place where real people went. Once Crusader kingdoms, however fragile, were set up in Palestine, they traded with their kin in Europe, sending finished goods to Europe and importing raw materials. The result was a stimulus to Mediterranean trade. The need to transfer large sums of money for troops and supplies led to development of banking and accounting techniques. If the combatants in the Crusades came mostly from France, Germany and England, the middlemen tended to be merchants from northern Italy. The Crusades launched the economic dominance of cities like Genoa and Venice. The financial burdens of the Crusades, coupled with the need to borrow money to finance them, weakened the power of the nobility and strengthened the merchant classes and the independence of cities.

A number of cultural institutions we think of as characteristically medieval came into being during the Crusades. Crusader knights, almost all of them illiterate, soon began using emblems and geometric designs to identify themselves. This practice later evolved into a complex code of heraldic emblems and coats of arms. Romantic and imaginative literature also blossomed during the Crusades. Although we typically picture the Middle Ages in terms of stone castles, a great deal of Europe's knowledge of heavy stone masonry, and construction of castles and stone churches was returned from the Middle East. So were improved techniques of siege technology, tunneling, and sapping. Although tunneling technology would later be of great use in mining, its purpose in warfare was to undermine or sap enemy fortifications. (Engineers, often called "sappers", have been considered a completely different branch of the military from the Army itself in many countries.) European churches also began to include spires or steeples at about the time of the Crusades, possibly inspired by minarets.

The cultural and technological enrichment was primarily from East to West; Europe was underdeveloped by Middle Eastern standards and had little to give in return. The principal effects of the Crusades on the Moslem world were negative. Europe lost prestige and military status in the eyes of Moslems, perhaps encouraging the later Turkish incursions into the Balkans. The Moslem world was already becoming more intellectually and theologically conservative; the Crusades accelerated the process and further undermined the long tradition of tolerance in the Moslem world. However, while the Crusaders were making minor nuisances of themselves pecking away at the Moslem world from the West, the Moslem world was about to receive a sledgehammer blow from the East: the Mongol invasions


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Created 27 August 1998, Last Update 14 December 2009

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