The reasons for the European crusades and their subsequent results have been debated by historians for many years. To some degree, the overarching historical cause of crusades was the centralization of the monarchies of Europe, combined with the growing spiritual power of the Church that inadvertently produced a new “barbarian” invasion to the region of Palestine. In this guide, we will look at what started the crusades, the most important of these “religious wars,” and the impact they had on world history.
The immediate reasons for the crusades center around the city of Jerusalem, which is a holy city not only for Christians but for Jews and Muslims. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem and the surrounding region of Palestine was controlled by Muslims who, despite religious differences, permitted Jews and Christians religious freedom. But in the early eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks—who were also Muslim—took control of Palestine, including Jerusalem. Rather than allowing religious freedom, they closed Jerusalem to both Jews and Christians. Also, the Turks started invading the Christian lands of the empire of Byzantium, which bordered Palestine. These two aggressive moves by the Turks started a chain reaction beginning with the Christian emperor of Byzantium sending envoys to the pope seeking help.
“Ambassadors from the emperor of Constantinople [Byzantium] came to the synod and humbly implored the lord pope and all faithful Christians to send him help to defend the Holy Church against the pagans. For these pagans were then ravaging those parts, and had conquered almost all the territory up to the walls of Constantinople.”—Bernold of Constance Chronicon (1099)
In 1095, Pope Urban II received the Byzantine emperor’s plea asking for a few armored knights to help open the Holy Land and defend against the Turks the region. The pope saw the plea as a political opportunity to extend the power of the Church in Europe and Palestine. So Urban II made his official impassioned speech for help to a large crowd in a field in Clermont, France. His plea was for a crusade or holy war against the Muslim forces in the Holy Land that promised penance for the crusaders.
“Let those who were brigands become soldiers of Christ; let those who have been fighting against their own brothers and relations now rightfully fight barbarians; let those who recently were hired for a few pieces of silver, win their eternal reward! Let those who have wearied themselves to the destruction of body and soul now work for the honor of both!”—Pope Urban II at Clermont (1095)
As a result of this plea, several armies were formed and started the trek to the Holy Land. The symbol of the crusader became a red cross sewn on their tunics. Historians estimate that at least 10,000 knights and 50,000 soldiers participated in the First Crusade. Surprisingly, an equal number of common people responded to the Urban’s call despite his expressed dismay.
“Bishops should also be careful not to allow their parishioners to go without the advice and foreknowledge of the clergy. You must also see to it that young married men do not rashly set out on such a long journey with the agreement of their wives.”—Pope Urban II at Clermont (1095)
The First Crusade (1096-1099) was the most successful. The crusaders captured Jerusalem and dominated the region of Palestine by 1099 without the aid of Byzantium which had originally called for help. The crusaders then created three feudal kingdoms centered on the cities of Antioch, Tripoli, and Edessa. But these feudal states were in a constant state of need and depended on Europe economically and politically. The Second Crusade (1147-1149) was a failed effort to provide the crusader kingdoms with needed reinforcements.
By the time of the Third Crusade (1191), Jerusalem and most of the territories of the crusader kingdoms had fallen to Muslim forces led by the great leader Saladin. It was during this crusade that Richard the Lionhearted emerged as the great warrior monarch of England. But despite his heroic efforts, he was not able to regain Jerusalem from the Muslim forces. Richard the Lionhearted did agree to a treaty with Saladin that guaranteed Christian pilgrims access to the city of Jerusalem.
The crusading spirit ebbed and flowed like a business cycle after the Third Crusade. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) was launched against the city that started it all, Constantinople. The Children’s Crusade (1212) never reached the Holy Land but did end in slavery. The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) started and stalled in Egypt. The Sixth Crusade (1228-1229) had some success in Palestine but it was short-lived. The Seventh Crusade (1248-1254) into Egypt was led by Saint Louis IX of France. But despite his reputation as the Christian warrior king, the crusade failed. Saint Louis was haunted by his failure and returned to Tunis in North Africa to start the Eighth Crusade (1270), but again to no avail.
In the end, Islamic forces led by the fierce Muslim leader Baybars dismantled the shattered and weak remnants of the crusader kingdoms from 1271 to 1291. The city of Acre was the last Christian crusader stronghold to fall; the crusading spirit died out.
The impact of the crusades on world history cannot be overstated. The crusades precipitated the decline of the Byzantine Empire allowing for the rise of the Ottoman Turks and Russia. The crusades enhanced the power of the Catholic Church, which continues to maintain more followers than any other organized religion. The crusades reestablished European commercial ventures in the Middle East, bringing wealth and power back to the Italian peninsula that explodes into the Renaissance. The crusades also brought Europe into closer contact with Asia and Africa reestablishing interregional trade networks which will give rise to exploration and the development of global trade networks. Finally the crusades helped advance technology in the form of more accurate maps, magnetic compasses, crossbows, and military techniques.
When the crusades finally subsided, they had reconnected Europe with Asia and Africa, reestablishing the interregional trade network which had been lost for nearly five hundred years.
by Timothy C. Hall, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World History, Second Edition