The Crusades

The causes of the Crusades were many and complex, but prevailing religious beliefs were clearly of major importance. The Crusaders continued an older tradition of the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which was often imposed as a penalty; however, they assumed a dual role as pilgrims and warriors. Such an armed pilgrimage was regarded as an acceptable war, because it was fought to recapture the places sacred to Christians.

Jerusalem had been under Muslim rule since the 7th century, but pilgrimages were not cut off until the 11th century, when the Seljuk Turks began to interfere with Christian pilgrims. For Christians, the very name of Jerusalem made them had visions of the end of time and of the heavenly city. To help rescue the Holy Land fulfilled the ideal of the Christian knight. Papal encouragement motivated thousands to enrol in the cause.

Political considerations were also important. The Crusades were a response to appeals for help from the Byzantine Empire, threatened by the advance of the Seljuk Turks. The year 1071 had seen both the capture of Jerusalem and a significant defeat of the Byzantine army at Manzikert, creating fear of further Turkish victories. In addition, the hopes of the papacy for the reuniting of East and West, the nobility’s hunger for land at a time of crop failures, population pressure in the West, and an alternative to warfare at home were major impulses.

In my opinion, the Crusades were equally a result of economic circumstances. The fabulous riches of the East attracted many participants; a campaign abroad appealed as a means of escaping from the pressures of this society, in which the younger sons in a family often lacked economic opportunities. On a larger scale, the major European powers and the rising Italian cities (Genoa, Pisa, and Venice) saw the Crusades as a means of establishing and extending trade routes.

The First Crusade was launched by Pope Urban II in a speech at the Council of Clermont, France, on Nov. 27, 1095. Urban spoke of the need to help the Christian East, to “stop the abuse of the holy places, and stressed the moral duty of keeping the “Peace of God” at home.”2 He appealed for volunteers to set out for Jerusalem. The response was overwhelming. With the cry “Deus vult!” (“God wills it”), thousands took the cross. Bands of poorly armed pilgrims, most of them inexperienced and poor, set out for Constantinople under Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless even before the army gathered. Some began by massacring Jews in the Rhine valley. Many perished on there way east, and the rest were destroyed by the Muslims when they crossed into Anatolia.

The main army, mostly French and Norman knights under brilliant leadership of Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin of Flanders, Raymond of Toulouse, Robert of Normandy, Bohemond of Taranto, and others–assembled at Constantinople and proceeded on a long, difficult march through Anatolia. They captured Antioch (June 3, 1098) and finally Jerusalem (July 15, 1099) in savage battles. By the end of the campaign, four Crusader states had been formed along the Syrian and Palestinian coast: the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, where Baldwin was crowned king.

The second Crusade had its immediate cause in the loss (1144) of Edessa to the Muslims of Mosul and Aleppo. Challenged by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, King Louis VII of France and the German King Conrad III tried to lead separate armies through Anatolia. What remained of them joined in an unsuccessful siege of Damascus. The only success of this Crusade was the capture of Lisbon (1147), Portugal, by English and Frisian Crusaders on their way to the East by ship.

The Third Crusade was a response to the conquest (1187) of almost all of Palestine, including Jerusalem, by Sultan Saladin, who had consolidated Muslim power in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt. The Crusade’s remarkable leadership included King Philip II of France, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, and King Richard I of England. “Frederick, however, drowned en route in Cilicia, and the Crusading effort disintegrated through attrition and lack of cooperation.”3 Acre was recaptured (1191), but Philip returned to France soon after. Jaffa was secured, mainly through the initiative of Richard, who also occupied Cyprus.

Pope Innocent III attempted to reorganize the Crusading efforts under papal supervision. But lack of funds to pay for the passage of the 10,000 Crusaders in Venice forced a diversion of the mostly French army. At the request of the Venetians, the Crusaders first attacked the Christian city of Zara, in Dalmatia. Then they sailed on to lay siege to Constantinople. The Byzantine capital fell on Apr. 13, 1204; it was looted–particularly for its treasures of relics–and made the residence of a Latin emperor, with Baldwin. A Greek army almost casually recaptured the city in 1261.

The results of the Crusades are difficult to assess. In religious terms, they hardened Muslim attitudes toward Christians. At the same time, doubts were raised among Christians about God’s will, the church’s authority, and the role of the papacy. On the other hand, the Crusades did stimulate religious enthusiasm on a broad scale. They inspired a great literature in Latin and in the vernacular, especially the Romance languages. Contacts with the Muslim world started to replace ignorance about other cultures and religions with a certain respect for them. “The idea of religious conversion by force gave way to a new emphasis on apologetics and mission.”4 Peter the Venerable, an abbot of Cluny, had the Koran translated into Latin (1143), and Francis of Assisi tried in person to convert the sultan of Damietta during the Fifth Crusade. Later Franciscans continued the concern for mission to the Muslims.

The Crusader states and the Latin Empire of Constantinople were short-lived. Only the military orders founded in the East (the HOSPITALERS, TEMPLARS, and TEUTONIC KNIGHTS) had an observable influence on later European politics. The almost endless quarrels among rival lords in the Levant exposed a fatal weakness of the West and strengthened the Muslim conviction that the war could be carried farther west. In this sense, the Crusades led directly to the Turkish wars of later centuries, in which the Ottoman Empire expanded into the Balkans and threatened the very heart of Europe. Today only the ruins of Crusader castles remain as evidence of the knights’ presence in the East. More than 100 castles and fortresses were built, the majority during the defensive phase after the Second Crusade.

“Economically, the Crusades imposed huge burdens on the clergy and the laity.”5 The growing economy of Western Europe was drained of funds in support of the expeditions. At times, the papacy was unable to support any other causes effectively. Still, the Crusades furthered the rapid growth of a money economy, of banking, and of new methods of taxation. “The widening of the geographical horizon prepared Europe for the discoveries of the modern age. Trade, architecture, and the growing urban culture, particularly in France and Italy, were stimulated through the Crusades, and Islamic science, philosophy, and medicine deeply influenced intellectual life in the West.”6 Much of this influence, however, came through contacts with the Muslims in Spain and Sicily; the Crusaders in the East generally remained isolated from the surrounding culture.

In conclusion, politically, the Crusades did not effect much change. Religion was obviously one of the major causes of the crusades. Religion was important to the knights in the middle Ages. One of the results of the Crusades was the founding of new religious orders. But many questions still remain in our mind about the crusaders and many arguments remains unsolved. Thus an evaluation of the results, as well as of the phenomenon of the Crusades themselves, remains an issue for debate.


G. Villehardouin, Chronicles of the Crusades (New York, 1963) p.15

2 J. Smith, The Crusades: A short History (Buffalo, 1990) p. 7

3 W. Barlett, God Wills It (Toronto, 1995), p. 10

4 E. M. Christiansen, The Northern Crusades (California, 1998), p. 23

5 W. Barlett, God Wills It (Toronto, 1995), p. 13

6 J. Smith, The Crusades: A short History (Buffalo, 1990) p. 8


Book Sources

Villehardouin, Geoffrey. Chronicles of the Crusades, New York, Pan Books Ltd, 1963.

Smith, Riley. The Crusades: A short History, Buffalo, Warner Prints, 1990

Bartlett, W. P. God Wills it, Toronto, Avon Books, 1995.

Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades, Canada, McClelland-Bantam, Inc., 1998

Internet Sources

“Medieval Crusades”,,

(May 28th, 2004)

“The Crusades”, April 1999,,

(May 28th, 2004)

“The Crusader and the Ayyubid Period”,,

(May 28th, 2004)

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