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The Crusades

1. The crusades are among the most remarkable phenomena of the Middle Ages. Extending over two centuries, the Crusades may be considered a manifestation of this general European advance, evidence of the West's great expansive powers. The internal colonization of previously uninhabited regions within Europe was matched by the external colonization of lands inhabited by Muslim "infidels" or by "schismatic" Greeks. The whole eleventh century was a period of deepening religious feeling, which found expression in monastics and ascetic forms of piety, not least among the laity. This increasing religious zeal, animated by the Cluny movement, had been the force which reformed the church at large and nerved the papacy in its long struggle with the empire. Those regions that had come into closest relation with the reforming papacy, France, Lorraine, and southern Italy, were the recruiting grounds of the chief crusading armies. The crusader's "taking the cross", his life of self-sacrifice as Christ's soldier, was seen as an imitation of the monastic life and an approximation of the monk's higher spiritual perfection. The [piety of the time also placed great value on pilgrimages to holy places, above all to the land hallowed by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Holy Land had been an object of pilgrimage since the days of Constantine. Though Jerusalem had been in Muslim possession since 638, pilgrimages had been practically uninterrupted, in view of the relatively tolerant Arab rule. By the middle of the eleventh century, the number of pilgrims, and the frequency of the pilgrimages, had reached new height. However this situation changed when Seljuk Turks, beginning in 1071 conquered much of Asia Minor. By 1079 they controlled Jerusalem and thereafter pilgrimages were virtually impossible.

2. The first impulse to the Crusade came from an appeal of the eastern emperor, Michael VII (1071-1078) to Pope Gregory VII for aid against the Seljuks. Alexius I (1088-1118), a stronger ruler than him immediate predecessors in Constantinople, saw the divisive squabbles among the Seljuk chieftain as an opportunity to take the offensive. He therefore appealed to Pope Urban II for assistance in raising a body of western knights to help him recover his lost Asiatic provinces. Urban called on all Christendom to take part in the work, promising a complete remission of sins to those who would take the arduous journey. Urban thus combined the old idea of pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the more recent idea of holy war against the infidel. The crusader was at once pilgrim and soldier, bound by a solemn vow to visit the Holy Sepulcher in the ranks of an organized, armed expedition. This vow, attested to by the wearing of a cross sewn to one's clothes, was a permanent obligation that could be enforced by legal sanctions. It served to keep the ranks of the crusading armies from dwindling once serious obstacles were encountered.

3. The real work of the First Crusade (1096-1099) was accomplished by the feudal nobility of Europe. Four sizable armies were raised. Taking three different routes, the forces arrived to meet Alexius I in Constantinople in the winter and spring of 1096-1097. In May 1097 the crusading army began the siege of Nicea which surrendered in June. On July 1 a decisive victory over the Turks near Dorylaeum opened the route across Asia Minor, so that Iconium was reached by the middle of August. By October the crusaders were before the walls of Antioch, which was captured only after a difficult siege on June 3, 1098. Three days later, the crusaders were besieged in Antioch by the Turkish ruler Kerbogha of Mosul, but on June 28 Kerbogha was defeated. It was not until June 1099 that Jerusalem was reached and July 15 that it was captured. Its inhabitants, Muslims and Jews, were put to the sword. The complete defeat of an Egyptian relieving army near Ascalon on August 12, 1099 crowned the success of the Crusade.

4. In 1145, Pope Eugenius III (1145-1153) proclaimed a new Crusade and in 1147 the Second Crusade (1147-1149) set forth, but it showed little of the fiery enthusiasm which the first crusade possessed. Its forces largely perished in Asia Minor, and those that reached Palestine were utterly unsuccessful at taking Damascus in 1148. The expedition was a disastrous failure, and left a bitter feeling in the West toward the eastern Empire, to whose princes that failure, rightly or wrongly, was charged.

5. The news of this catastrophe roused Europe to the Third Crusade (1189-1192), proclaimed by Pope Gregory VIII (1188). None of the Crusades was more elaborately equipped. Three great armies were led by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1152-1190), the leading soldier of his time, by King Philip Augustus of France (1180-1223), and by King Richard the Lion-Hearted of England (1189-1199). Frederick was accidentally drown in Cilicia, and his army, deprived of his vigorous leadership was utterly ineffective. The constant quarrels between the kings of France and England, and Philip's return to France to promote his own political schemes, almost aborted the whole expedition. The vital port of Acre was recovered, but Jerusalem remained in Muslim possession. Before leaving for Europe in 1192, Richard made a three-year truce with Saladin whereby the Latins were left with rights of access to the Holy Sepulcher. The Third Crusade had little to show for such an enormous effort.

6. The chief beneficiary of the Crusades was the medieval papacy whose authority and prestige was greatly enhanced by these expeditions. The popes stood forth as defenders of Christendom, proponents of a united Christendom against the infidels, inspirers of the crusading idea, protectors of the crusaders, and organizers of the military resources of the West. The Crusades also marked an important stage in the theory and practice of indulgences and in the elaboration of the church's canon law. Not least, the prosecution of the holy war against infidel Muslims helped to legitimate the idea of the Crusade as an appropriate response to western schismatics, heretics, and political opponents of the papacy. The military strategy pursued in the East could also be applied to the internal problems of the western church.


Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at Amazon.com)

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