The Crusades were a series of military expeditions to the lands around Jerusalem in an effort to wrest control of the Holy Land from the Muslims. The crusaders’ main intent was to ensure safe passage to European Christian pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem to medieval times was considered virtuous, and pilgrims needed protection from Muslim persecution. But the Western Church, based in Rome, had even more lofty goals: It desired a reunification of the Western and Eastern Churches and an increase in its own power and influence.
When the Roman Empire fell, the Roman church was split in two. The Eastern Church established its base in Constantinople and performed its masses in Greek. The Western Church was based in Rome and conducted its masses in Latin. When Europe began to recover from the tumultuous era that proceeded the twelfth century, the popes of the Western Church began to desire a reunification that would significantly increase the church’s wealth and range of influence. When word came from the Easter Church at Constantinople that the Seljuk Turks – who had newly converted to Islam – had overtaken the Holy Land and conquered most of the Byzantine Empire, Pope Urban II of Rome saw a divine opportunity. When the Eastern Church pleaded with the pope for help in defeating the Turks, Urban was happy to give it. The First Crusade was launched.
The First Crusade – which began in 1096 – was the only one of the Crusades that was successful. After several years of fighting the Muslims, the Christian crusaders finally captured the city of Acre in 1104. Soon after, they ousted the Muslim Turks from the region. The Christians then established strongholds throughout the Holy Land and Christians were once again safe in Jerusalem. But peace did not last long. Although the Christians and Muslims usually got along well, discord occasionally developed between the two religious factions. Beginning in 1128, a Turkish ruler named Zengi began taking advantage of this friction and recaptured areas of the Holy Land. When the king of Jerusalem appealed to the pope in Rome for help in defeating Zengi, the pope called for the Second Crusade.
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In 1147, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a prominent monk from the Cistercian order, preached the merits of the Second Crusade. Upon hearing the powerful speaker describe Muslim atrocities against the Christians in the Holy Land, people throughout Europe took arms and joined the expedition. The Second Crusade was led by France’s King Louis VII And Germany’s Conrad III. Foolishly, these military leaders decided to reclaim Damascus from the Muslims. Damascus, however, had been an ally of the Christians because it too had been threatened by Zengi. Once attacked by its supposed friends, Muslim leaders in Damascus made a call to arms, and Louis and Conrad were soundly defeated. The Second Crusade was a failure.
Zengi’s successor, Nur al-Din, made further inroads into Christian territory, but he was constantly distracted by simultaneous conflicts with Egyptian Muslims. His successor, Saladin, also fought the Egyptians and succeeded in having himself named king of Egypt and Syria. In 1187, Saladin began a military siege of the Christian kingdom in the Holy land and succeeded in overthrowing the Christian forces. News of the loss of Jerusalem shocked western Europe, and in 1189, the pope declared a Third Crusade. Richard I of England, Philip II of France, and Frederick I Barbarossa of Germany each vowed to join the crusade. Barbarossa fell into a river and drowned midroute, however, and Philip quickly tired of the fighting and went home. Richard, however, stayed. The Third Crusade is perhaps best known for the rivalry between Richard and Saladin, respected rivals who fought each other ruthlessly. The result of the Third Crusade was limited victor for the Christians: Saladin allowed Richard to claim a thin portion of land along the Mediterranean coast, but the rest of the Holy Land belonged to the Muslims.
Pope Innocent III was not satisfied with limited success, however, and in 1198 he announced the Fourth Crusade. But the Fourth Crusade would turn out to be the most brutal and corrupt of all the Crusades, and it failed disastrously. On their way to the Holy Land, the crusaders stopped for the winter in Byzantine territory and soon got involved in political infighting in Constantinople. The ruler Isaac II was overthrown by his brother, who had himself crowned as Alexius III. Isaac’s son, Alexius Angelus, managed to escape to the west and convince the crusaders to help him overthrow his uncle in exchange for money to cover the cost of the Crusades. The crusaders agreed to the bargain and Alexius Angelus was established as the new emperor. It quickly became clear, however, that Alexius was incompetent, and the Greeks rose up against him. The crusaders, who were Alexius’s allies, also came under attack. Unpaid by Alexius and tired of persecution by the Greeks, the crusaders vowed revenge. In 1204, they terminated their expedition to the Holy Land and instead sacked the city of Constantinople. Their barbaric conduct during the raid – including rape, pillage, and murder – destroyed many Europeans’ faith in the holiness of the Crusades.
Many minor crusades followed the Fourth, including a Children’s Crusade in which thirty thousand children from France and Germany embarked for the Holy Land. The Children’s Crusade ended in failure, also, with over half of the children sold into slavery. The minor crusades occurred sporadically until the 1300s, and all failed to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims. But even though the Crusades failed in their immediate objectives, they did succeed in producing some positive outcomes for Europe. Historians argue that the Crusades increased trade throughout Europe and facilitated the exchange of new ideas and technology. Many contend that the Crusades made possible the period of learning and creativity known as the twelfth-century renaissance. Others argue that the Crusades brought Europe wealth and influence. The Crusades also facilitated an exchange of power that would have enormous consequences for Europe. As the papacy weakened due to increasing disillusionment over the Crusades, kings wrested power from the church. This transference of power from ecclesiastical into secular hands paved the way for the formation of modern European nations.
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But the Crusades resulted in many negative consequences as well. Many historians contend that the Crusades increased religious intolerance. They maintain that the Crusades made permanent the break between the Eastern and Western Churches and left lasting discord between them. Some historians contend that the Crusades also set in motion the religious turmoil that has plagued the Middle East since the twelfth century. Karen Armstrong, a writer and teacher, argues that the holy wars in the Middle East today “are the latest round in a conflict that began when the Christian West persecuted and massacred Jews and Muslims in the First Crusade.” Other historians point out that when each new crusade began, religious ferrver incited Europeans to persecute and slaughter European Jews. Ronald C. Finucane, a professor of history at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, argues that the hatred toward Jews that flared up during the First Crusade established a tradition of European anti-Semitism. He contends that “the slaughter of the First Crusade . . . remained the blackest memory for the Jews of Europe until overshadowed by the even greater slaughter of our own age.” That is, Finucane suggests that the anti-Semitism produced by the Crusades led to the Holocaust persecution of the Jews under Hitler during World War II.
The Crusades had far-reaching consequences not only for Europe and the Middle East but the world. The crusading movement led to European imperialism and made possible the discovery of the new World by Europeans. The Crusades had an enormous impact on the world’s three major religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In spite of their failures, the Crusades established Europe as a major world player in the centuries to come.