Introduction to the Crusades: An Atheist Perspective

In this lecture, I shall discuss the Crusades, or so-called Holy Wars, of the Middle Ages.  I have limited my lecture to the first five Crusades, spanning the years from 1095 to about 1229.  The lecture will exclusively survey the Crusades that were undertaken against the East, which encompasses the first five.  Our talk will glance at the battles, the reasons for the Crusades, both overt and covert, and the communal acceptance of violence in the cause of religion. I shall touch on the role of women during the Crusades as well. I shall be discussing these strange wars from the vantage point of the Western crusaders, but make no mistake, although I am pointing out much of the gratuitous violence of the Christian armies, I am not an apologist for the Muslim cause.  The Christians, the Saracens, and the Byzantine Emperors, all active players in the Eastern wars, were motivated by religious ideology, greed, opportunism and desire for power and glory.

Ideological warfare, killing for a holy cause and the prior justification for that violence, can be seen throughout the history of the human race.  The medieval Crusades are a picturesque illustration of this cruel folly.  They have been of considerable interest to countless generations of people.  They have sometimes been used to emphasize and explain the escalation of contemporary tensions between a secularized Western world that continues to pay lip service to religion and the various nations that embrace religion in the form of Islam, particularly the countries in the Mideast.

It would be a mistake, however, to try to use the Crusades to explain the political, religious and economic conflicts of the present day.  Such explanations are frequently spurious and mistaken.

We will also be scrutinizing the religious traditions of both Christianity and Islam that justified and encouraged violence, as well as the economic impact from the Crusades on Europe and the Mideast.  Before I go into the battles themselves, I would like to explain a few of the terms.  What does Crusade mean?  The word is a non-medieval, Franco-Spanish hybrid that has become a popular English word since the 18th Century. It was not used during medieval times. The crusaders themselves were called crucesignati, which meant people, not exclusively male, signed with the cross.  There was not one single word to designate crusade.  It is interesting that the crusaders’, or as they were called then, crucesignatis’, activities were described in analogical or euphemistic terms, such as peregrinatio, pilgrimage and negotium, business. Early on, holy war was sometimes described as the Jerusalem journey.

This looseness of terminology allowed for a change in target or goal, say a place to invade, Egypt or Constantinople, rather than Jerusalem.  It also masked the looseness of interpretation concerning expectations for both the behavior and the principles of the crusaders. From Medieval times to the present day, there have always been elastic perceptions concerning the object of the holy wars.  In the Middle Ages, the Crusade concept moved from regaining Jerusalem from foreign hands to undertaking military action against various perceived threats to the Catholic Church, from internal and external enemies, over an extended period.

The designation of Saracen for the Muslim warriors came from a Greek word, which derived from the Arabic word meaning Eastern.  Before Mohammed, Arabia had not existed as a political unit, so the Greeks carelessly referred to all the people who lived in the Arabian Peninsula as Saracens.  The crusaders themselves were frequently called Franks, which came from the fact that although their homes were from all over Europe, both Latin and Arabic sources frequently designated them as being French.  The cross the soldiers wore was Christianity’s most numinous symbol.  When the important Church council met at Clermont, France in 1095, it issued a decree that was a new beginning to Western Christianity’s use of war to further its mission, according to the historian Christopher Tyerman.  The Council’s decree stated: “Whoever for devotion alone, not to gain honor or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God can substitute this journey for all penance.”

When Pope Urban II went on his preaching/recruiting tour of France (1088-95,) urging a holy war to regain Jerusalem, he began the custom of handing out crosses to those who came forward to take the journey.  The Pope had a precedent from the Gospel of Matthew 16:24, that stated the putative words of Christ: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”  Other designations for the crusaders were “army of god” and “soldiers and knights of Christ.” The Hebrew accounts of the subsequent 1096 massacre of the Rhineland Jews, as the crusading armies passed through on their way to the East, stated that the killers wore the cross.

Despite the appearance of different goals and concerns in the later years of the Crusades, there was one original justification in 1095 for a holy war.

 That goal was the recovery of Jerusalem from Muslim rule.  Christian texts, which would have been familiar to the European populace through the Mass and the liturgy, denoted Jerusalem as a liminal space, where earth touched heaven.  Even though out of Christian hands since its conquest by Muslims in 638, it was still central to the Christian imagination as the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

Here is a direct quote from Tyerman: “What we today call a Crusade, could be described as a war answering God’s command, authorized by a legitimate authority, the Pope, who by virtue of the power seen as vested in him as Vicar of Christ, identified the war’s object, and offered to those who undertook it full remission of the penalties of confessed sins and a package of related temporal privileges, including church protection of family and property, immunity from law suits and interest payment on debts…Those dying in battle or otherwise in fulfillment of their vow could expect eternal salvation and to be regarded as martyrs.”

Be assured that Crusade history has very little to do with such popular and slightly “twee” works, as Sir Walter Scott’s 1820 Ivanhoe and The Talisman of 1825. Scott was a wonderful writer and I thoroughly enjoyed Ivanhoe, both the book and the 20th Century movie adaptation.  But such works were romanticized versions of the Crusades and did not depict their reality.  Scott perpetuated the false picture, among other errors, of the villainy of the Order of the Knights Templar.  If you will recall my lecture on the Inquisition, at, the Templars were falsely accused of many crimes and heresies, followed by a large public burning of many Templar knights. They were likely destroyed in order to confiscate the wealth of the Order and to do away with the power it had amassed.

Both The Order of the Knights Templar and its rival, the Order of the Knights Hospitallers, had originally had been formed to protect pilgrims on their journeys to the Holy Land.  However, the two orders soon began to engage in battle against the Saracens, which was a popular tactic, and the money from donations poured in.  The Templars became very powerful, engaging in a form of primitive banking across Europe, building fortifications and so on.

The cultural force of romantic versions of the Crusades, replete with pilgrims, knights, nobles, kings and beautiful ladies, was carried into the 20th and 21st Century by Hollywood, television and more fiction. Some of the romanticized volumes did not always describe themselves as fiction.  La Monte, the great American crusader scholar of the first half of the 20th Century, described such crossovers between history and entertainment as “worthless, pseudo-historical trash.”  The Middle East has also responded to the fictions of the Crusades.  For example, even though the great Saladin was a Kurd, an ethnic group historically in conflict with many Arabic regimes up to the present day, he is considered a modern Islamic hero.  There is a huge statue of him in Damascus, Syria, celebrating one of his famous victories in medieval times.

Despite the many accounts concerning the Crusades, the role of women during the conflicts has been neglected until recent years.  A small number of women accompanied the troops, as pilgrims, companions and wives, washerwomen and prostitutes.  Royal women frequently accompanied their husbands, and a few were more in favor of crusading than their noble husbands.  Some of the more notable women who journeyed to the Holy Land with husbands or brothers were Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor of Montfort, Marguerite of Provence and Eleanor of Castile.

The women left at home to defend and care for their castles and strongholds while their husbands were away, often for many years, on Crusades, took on admirable and difficult responsibilities.  They had to keep the estate stable, make sure the crops came in for the sustenance of their people, raise and educate the children, look after legal matters and collect monies for potential ransoms for their husbands.  Sometimes women had to lead a defense against knights who would try to take advantage of the lord’s absence and take over the castle.  There are even a few reports of women in charge of estates being killed in such actions.

The East produced the arguably first woman historian.  Anna Comnena, the daughter of Alexius I, of Constantinople, wrote a twelve volume history of her father’s reign after his death and her failed bid to become Empress of the Byzantine Empire. This history, The Alexiad, gave an account of the First Crusade of 1095-9, and provided insight into the nature of the conflicts between the empire of her father and the Western powers.  Her work is of special importance because it provides the only extensive Hellenic view of the early crusades, especially the First Crusade. This sophisticated Greek historian poured contempt on the Frankish crusaders, whom she considered crude and barbarous.

I now would like to discuss the ordering of the Crusades.  We know that historians organize past events to help them and their readers keep track of occurrences and times. Notable historians are very aware of their artificial structuring. They attempt to weave a cohesive narrative that makes sense of the historical evidence. One can become mentally trapped by such arrangements, so it does well to keep in mind that the past was more fluid than our rigid categorizations.

There were scores of military operations between 1095 and about 1500 that meted out privileges for the participants of what were deemed crusades, or wars of the cross.  Only a few came to be conclusively numbered, and they were all campaigns begun against Muslim opponents in Syria and Palestine in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is important to keep in mind that after the unique First Crusade of 1095, each following Crusade invoked the precedent of the first one.  We shall be omitting crusades, such as the Children’s Crusade, which ended with many children sold into slavery, the Shepherds’ Crusade and many others to concentrate on the arbitrary division made by historians in the early 18th Century.

There were five significant Crusades- in 1096, 1146, 1190, 1217-29, and 1248. Some 18th Century scholars counted eight Crusades.  Most modern historians, however, number the Crusades through the Fifth and then dispense with enumerating.  We shall do the same, recounting some of the high and low points of each mission, and some of the reasons for each one, as well as the rationale, outcome, and economic ramifications of each one. The conclusion will discuss the Western and Eastern religious motivation for the Crusades, contrasting and comparing Muslim jihad and Christian concept of just war. Let us keep in mind, as we progress, how important, how vital religious considerations were in the undertaking of medieval wars of the cross.

The First Crusade, 1095-1099, was arguably the most important, and relatively rational one.  I hesitate to use the term, rational, because I believe any decision based on religion, greed and the quest for power is not ever rational or justifiable.  However, the First Crusade made some sense for Christians in Western Europe. 

I am not planning, as I have stated, to try to minimize the heinous acts or treacherous behavior of Islam during the Crusades.  Islam was not blameless in the business of the Holy Wars.

  Indeed, Muslims had not only conquered Jerusalem in 638, and much of the Eastern world at that time, but some parts of Spain and Italy were also under their control. They had fought their own earlier religious wars of expansion and had been successful, so much so that Europe felt the threat of that expansion. Islam was a large menace to Western rulers, as well as Eastern ones.  Following the death of their leader, Mohammed, in 632, Islam had become militant and victorious.  It presented not only the tangible threat of a rival culture, but of a rival religion. By the 8th Century, Islamic armies had conquered North Africa, the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and, as I have mentioned, a great deal of Spain, as well as establishing power bases in Italy.  In the East, Islamic conquests had greatly reduced the power of the Byzantine Empire and were threatening its capital, Constantinople.  The Byzantine Empire could barely withstand them. But it is important to keep in mind, during the Crusade years, the divisions among the Muslim groups and their leaders, which helped contribute to Christian victories.  Islam was not a single entity.

In this lecture, I am looking at the wars of the cross from the vantage point of a secular Westerner, and critiquing Christian motives and behavior during those battles. The situation in 1095 was quite clear- there was a specific theological, political and social context for the Christian expedition against Islam.  Pope Urban II had been asserting papal power over both church and state, as had earlier popes, in the preceding fifty years. 

The popes were conducting a campaign for papal supremacy, and it was this effort that was the backdrop for the initiation of the first holy war.

Alexias Comnenus I, the ruler of Byzantium, or Constantinople, was a usurper to the throne of the Byzantine Empire, who had been recruiting Western knights and mercenaries for years.  In 1092, the Turkish Sultan of Baghdad died, and his empire had begun to deteriorate.  Alexias wanted to win back Asia Minor and Northern Syria, which the Byzantine Empire had lost to the Turks in 1071.  Alexias needed Western troops for this task and turned to the Pope as being an important potential ally.

Pope Urban was receptive to Alexias’s request and quickly magnified the political struggle into an eschatological and cosmological cause.  There was some difficulty finding princely leadership for the campaign. The kings of France and Germany had been excommunicated, the English King was in a dispute with the Pope, and the Spanish monarchs were too preoccupied with the Muslims on their frontier.  So the Pope turned to the higher nobility of dukes, counts and lords for his army.  Ultimately the recruiting net was cast wide, from Southern Italy and Sicily to Lombardy, across great swathes of France, from Aquitaine and Provence, and Flanders, into the Low Countries, West Germany, the North Sea region and Denmark.

But at first, Urban concentrated on the French nobles, summoning them to the earlier mentioned Church Council at Clermont.  Pope Urban was surrounded by Cardinals, Archbishops and priests, all in full regalia. 

He was on a throne on a high platform, and beyond him, the thousands of lords, knights, and vassals gathered there could see the new church of Notre-Dame-du-port, one of the most impressive churches in the Christian world.  It was a scene of high drama.

Pope Urban was a master of oratory and he addressed the race of Franks with skill. He claimed that Jerusalem, the holiest of all cities, was to be attacked.  Then he alleged that the infidels, or Saracens, defiled, then destroyed Christian altars, circumcised Christian men, raped Christian women, tortured and then killed Christians, and so on.  Such reports of attacks by Moslems on Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land had been filtering back to Europe.  Then the shrewd Urban made it clear to the nobles that there were lands and riches waiting for them in the East.  He offered them a deal they could not refuse: all the confessed sins, even the most grievous, violent ones, of those who embarked on this holy war, would be forgiven. Participation in the Crusade would be considered penance. 

Someone in the crowd, either spontaneously or by prearrangement, shouted: “God wills it!” The Pope repeated the cry, and it was taken up by the crowd.  It would be used many times in the history of the Crusades.  A Holy War had been proclaimed.  At the end of the recruitment period, an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 fighting men, excluding pilgrims who accompanied them for protection, reached Asia Minor in 1096 and 1097. 

There is an disturbing and violent segue to this tale.  The first group to set out was led by, among others, Peter the Hermit. 

Peter was rumored to have been treated badly by the Turkish ruler of Jerusalem when on a pilgrimage there some years earlier.  This army was not what it has often been called through the years, “The Peasants’ Crusade.” They were not a rabble that was unfunded and without aristocratic leadership, although they did not have as many nobles and mounted knights as many of the Crusades.  One of their patrician leaders was called Walter Sans Avoir, which was a place in the Seine Valley he came from and not a condition of poverty.

The Peasants’ Crusade was a charming troop; some French and German contingents of that group conducted what some historians have called the first Jewish holocaust, vicious anti-Jewish pogroms up and down the Rhineland in May and June, 1096.  As I have said, the group had been pretty well-funded and it also had sufficient provisions.  Some historians argue that this French/German contingent added to the funds substantially by invading Jewish towns. Since the members of this motley crew considered that they were attacking the enemies of Christ, they had no compunctions against raiding Jewish coffers of silver and confiscating them.

At Worms, they stormed the Jewish section of the town, slaying men, women and children indiscriminately, and then pillaging every home.  The crusaders torched the synagogue, after pulling out the Torah and ripping it to pieces.  One thousand Jews were killed.  Then the peasant army marched to Mainz, where the Jewish inhabitants threw coins and precious goods out of their windows, to assuage the invaders.  But the rabble dragged the Jewish citizens into the street and ordered them to submit to Christian baptism.  Over 900 people refused and had their throats sliced.

 The crusaders attacked Jews in Cologne, Tier, Metz, Prague, and Ratisbon.  It is a guess as to how many Jewish people perished.  Some historians say about 10,000 in all. The claim that it was by such violent means that the Peasants’ Crusade was funded persists.

Attacks on Jewish communities continued through most of the Holy Wars.  But many astute historians warn that blaming the Crusades for the complex group of reasons that ushered virulent anti-Semitism into Europe is too simplistic, that the causes were long standing and growing by the time of the Peasants’ Crusade. There are other historians who believe that the systematic persecution and mass murder of Jews is an inheritance of the Crusades.  Prior to that time, many towns in Europe saw Jews as an economic asset and they were encouraged to own land, homes and businesses.

This ill-disciplined and violent peasants’ group reached Constantinople in August, 1096.  On the way, they also killed Christians in Belgrade and attacked the Hungarian Army, massacring 5,000 people in retaliation for the deaths of pillaging crusaders from their group.  A smaller, but bitter conflict took place in Knish. But this time, it was 15,000 of Peter’s crusaders who were killed or sold into slavery. After finally crossing the Bosporus into Asia, the Peasants’ Crusade was annihilated by the Turks in September and October, 1096, just before the arrival of the princely crusaders a few weeks later.

Six large princely armies arrived at Constantinople between November, 1096, and 1097, with no real single commander among the many nobles who were participating. 

Raymond of Toulouse, and Adhemar, a Bishop, were the loose leaders of the First Crusade, with quite a few aristocrats contending for command.  Alexias, the Byzantine Emperor, persuaded or forced each commander to make an oath of fealty to him. That concluded, he gave them a regiment of troops, provisions, money and guides.  The First Crusade was completed in several stages. A notable conquest was in Antioch, where the Holy Lance, that putatively pierced Jesus’ heart at the crucifixion, was found.  This relic raised morale so high that a few days later, on June 28, 1098, the Crusaders defeated a huge Moslem army that had threatened to overwhelm them.

Alexias I, always the clever politician, had, in 1099, begun to negotiate with the Fatimid Moslems. Ironically, by the time the crusaders prevailed, the Fatimids had already driven the Seljuk Turks out of Jerusalem.  The Fatimids were friendly to Christians and even offered the Western pilgrims access to the holy places in Jerusalem if the Westerners would abandon their plans to invade the city.  The Christians, however, decided to rid Jerusalem of all Moslem rule.  The Crusade had truly become a Holy War.

The final march on Jerusalem, from January to June 1099, was foreshadowed by an eclipse of the moon and other so-called miracles and visions that convinced the Crusaders, even though beset by plague and hunger, that they were instruments of divine providence. At the same time, they were also very shrewd, taking advantage of local politics at every stage, especially the chronic divisions between their Moslem opponents.  It cannot be emphasized enough, that during all the military and political campaigns in the East, Islam was never a single, undivided entity. The closest Islam came to unity was during the Third Crusade, which we shall discuss shortly.

Such divisions, rivalries and betrayals hurt the Moslem cause and often furthered Christian victory.

On the fifteenth of July, the crusaders were successful on the final assault on Jerusalem.  The ensuing carnage may have been exaggerated, but even if it was not as violent as reported, it was so vicious that it was shocking to both Moslems and Jews.  Men, women and children were all slaughtered, for example, in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and many more Moslems were simply slaughtered in the streets.  The Jews of Jerusalem were treated in a similar manner.  The chief synagogue was burned down, with all the people who had taken refuge in it.  The Holy Warriors even cut open the stomachs of the corpses, looking in their intestines for gold or silver coins the slain may have swallowed.

There were reportedly 70,000 people killed with the fall of Jerusalem.   The crusaders celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving, and then faced the difficulty of getting rid of the bloated corpses. After much squabbling, they decided that the bodies did not deserve a decent burial in a mass grave.  They burned the dead in front of the city gates, dividing them into huge piles of bodies.  Western chroniclers described the Christian victory in apocalyptic terms, with glowing approval.

We shall note often during this lecture, how much religion was infused into not just the beginning of the Crusades, but throughout the entire history of them.  Such religiosity on the part of the Crusaders would be echoed, by the time of the Third Crusade, 1188-92, by the Muslims.  They would embrace their traditional concept of jihad, war against the infidels, more firmly than before. 

Religion, while never a singular cause, was an important motivation for Holy Wars. Indeed some historians believe it was the prime motive force for them. Once again in this series of lectures, the deleterious and negative effects of religion can be seen, this time as an instigation for staggering amounts of misery and death.

At any rate, the First Crusade established important bridgeheads at Antioch in Syria and Jerusalem in Palestine.  Four principalities, with Christian rulers, were eventually carved out: the kingdom of Jerusalem, the principality of Antioch, the county of Edessa and the county of Tripoli.  The traditional name for them was the Outremer, the land overseas, from the French language.

Time does not permit a detailed account of the growth of the Outremer.  But the new states, ruled by Westerners, began to thrive.  The Franks in the East did not farm the land themselves and so they did not need vast amounts of serfs and peasants.  They simply took ¼ and/or 1/3 of each harvest, the proceeds of which enabled them to build new castles and fortify old ones.

In fact, the crusader states, or the Outremer, as they were called, did not rely on agriculture as they needed to do in the West.  The caravans that came from Damascus to the ports of Acre and Tyre brought new wealth.  The products were exotic and pleasing: silks, sugar, and spices such as pepper, ginger, cloves and cinnamon.  New fruits came in the caravans, too: lemons, peaches, cherries, dates and apricots.  Other desirable consumer goods arrived as well: tapestries, rugs, dyes, powders, scents and gems. 

The Italian merchants from Pisa, Genoa and Venice were given “trading estates” in the main ports and paid the formerly Latin Christian nobles a good percentage.  The caravans, too, paid well for their ability to come and go unmolested.

Incredible wealth was generated from such a trading system.  The Franks offered a house and 150 acres of land to each new Christian settler and Outremer attracted more population from Europe. Moslems and Franks started to get along.   The Franks soon began to become more Eastern in their habits. They started to marry Syrian Christian women, to eat highly seasoned food and dates, and some even wore turbans and robes.  There were Franks who began to sit in the public baths and gossip, as was the Eastern custom.  The third Outremer generation commenced to be considered soft.  The Easternized Franks had too much in common, some Western Europeans thought, with their Moslem counterparts.  Many of them even liked to hunt and fly falcons, and play dice. In many ways, despite continuous skirmishes and sometimes larger conflicts with Islam, the Eastern settlements, the Outremer, seemed like heaven on Earth. 

I would like to emphasize once again the division of the Moslem world at the time we are speaking of.  The Moslem Shiites made up about 14% of the Arab population, while the Moslem Sunnis made up about 81%.  Their religious differences were serious and the two groups were in frequent conflict.  The Assassins were another formidable sect.  They were founded by Hasan as’Sabah, a Shiite poet and somewhat communistic political leader.  From its headquarters in a remote, mountainous region of Persia, the Assassin sect specialized in political murder. The members who committed executions often were under the influence of hashish.

The assassins were expected to take their own lives after an execution.  As’ Sabah particularly targeted Sunnis.  The Assassins became close allies of the Crusaders, and it has been a matter of speculation if Richard the Lionhearted of England used their services to get rid of a political enemy during the Third Crusade. But the temporary rapprochement between many Eastern and Western inhabitants of the Outremer was about to come to an end.  We shall soon encounter an important idea that helped to terminate it: the Islamic jihad, the holy war against the Franks, or the infidels.

First I would like to say a word about Baghdad, which was the largest and most civilized city in the Eastern world.  Let us look at Baghdad in this medieval era we are studying.  The city had free hospitals, public baths, a postal service, water and sewage systems and banks with branches as far as China.  The Arabs were leaders in science, pharmacology, eye surgery and breast cancer.  They even had a simple form of anesthesia created from hashish, opium, darell, and belladonna.  We need to keep in mind that many of the Arab intellectual and innovative technologies also came from the contributions of conquered people brought to that the area, much as ancient Rome assimilated the philosophy and art of the conquered Greeks. Baghdad was one oasis in the Eastern world; it was not typical of the entire region.

But, as I have said, there was terrible conflict and division within the Arab world.  In the three years after the capture of Jerusalem, Baghdad changed leaders and power eight times.  New crusaders, waves of them, kept arriving in the East.  The Turks and other Moslems were distracted, trying to deal with these Western crusaders and were diverted from the Syria/Palestine difficulty.

However, the idea of jihad, or Holy War, was begun by the Arabs, not the Turks.  It was also the Arabs who saw the invasion of the Franks in theological terms, not soci0/economic ones.  After all, Arabs had conquered the Byzantine Christian lands in Syria, Persia and Palestine in the 7th century, during a jihad.  The Franks had now begun to recover what the Arabs had won.  Many Arabs began to reason that they needed a Holy War, a new jihad against the Franks, led by a Mahdi, a deliverer.

The huge number of Arab/Moslem refugees created an unfortunate situation for the Franks.  The refugees gathered in Baghdad, demanding that an army should be raised to conquer and expel the Franks.  The Caliph of Baghdad was caught between the Sunnis and the Shiites, but that was not the case for the young slave-born prince, Zengi, a Turk, not an Arab, and a Sunni, as well. Zengi became the ruler of Mosul and sought to extend his reign over all of Mesopotamia.  Jihad is an Arabian concept, but Zengi became the leader of jihad, nevertheless.  He lived simply, and drank hard, but demanded that his troops practice complete abstinence.  He was politically treacherous, erratically cruel and extremely feared. In addition, Zengi was also a charismatic preacher, who was believed by many to be the Deliverer, the Mahdi.

In 1144, Zengi captured Edessa and massacred the Frankish settlers.  Pope Eugenius III (1145- 1153) launched a new Crusade with a papal bull, a circular letter with a seal called a bull, hence the name.  The bull detailed the heroics of the First Crusade and laid out the detailed privileges of those who took the cross. The Pope enrolled many monarchs this time, from France and Germany.  

He put the recruiting into the hands of Bernard of Clairvaux, a very effective recruiter in France, Flanders and the Rhineland in 1146-47. The Second Crusade was undertaken from 1145-9.

Bernard’s preaching of intolerance to Christ’s enemies spilled over into more anti-Jewish violence in the Rhineland, which was disingenuously blamed on a monk named Rudolph.  Some of the crusaders were diverted to a few regions of the Baltic frontier, and some to Lisbon, to recapture Lisbon from the Moors, which they did in 1147.  It was the only success of the Second Crusade. Most of the remaining crusaders reached the Holy Land.

These newly arrived crusaders joined forces with the remnants of the sizable German and French land forces but all of them were defeated by Turkish forces in Asia Minor in 1147.  In October, the large German force was defeated at Doryleaum.  The French, badly weakened by defeat in Asia Minor, finally attacked Damascus, but the Crusade leaders, on the verge of victory, unaccountably retreated back to Jerusalem. Louis VII abandoned his infantry and set sail to Italy with his officers but few ordinary soldiers.   Subsequently the Holy Land campaign completely failed. 

For some time, the abysmal failure of the Second Crusade cast doubt on all such enterprises.  A German monk declared crusading was the work of the devil, and few contradicted him.  Nur-al-Din, the ruler of Aleppo, conquered Antioch and went on to the Mediterranean, where he bathed in its sea water in front of his troops, claiming to have also conquered the sea.

Many historians are agreed that the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Comnena, did plot the failure and demise of the Second Crusade, as he was accused of doing. 

He failed to provide money or supplies to the Crusade.  The Western Christians blamed the Greeks, the Byzantines, for the end of the Second Crusade, charging that Comnena lied, was treacherous and proffered bad advice.  It seems that they were correct, at least concerning Comnena’s bad faith.

The Third Crusade, 1188-92, was undertaken more than forty years after the failed attack on Damascus in 1148.  The fine strategic position of the Outremer had been gradually worn away.  Tyerman states that the unification of Syria under Zengi’s son, Nur-al-Din, ruler of Aleppo, the conquest of Egypt by his Kurdish military commander, Shirkuh, and the creation of an Egypto-Syrian empire by Shirku’s nephew, the famous Saladin (1169-93,) meant that by 1186, Outremer was surrounded by Moslem forces. In this third phase of the Crusades, great emphasis was placed by the Moslem principalities on Jihad-war against the infidels.  This was a new, very cohesive Muslim power, unlike the divided Eastern powers of the earlier Crusade years. Unfortunately, it coincided with Outremer’s weak finances and lack of aid from the West.  Matters had changed definitively. In Jerusalem, there were political instabilities and weak, unsettled monarchs. 

On July 4, 1187, Saladin completely wiped out the army of Jerusalem at the Battle of Hattin in Galilee.  During that same year, almost all Frankish ports and castles had surrendered or been conquered.  Jerusalem fell on October 2, 1187.  There was only Western resistance from Tyre, Tripoli and Antioch. Western Europe now woke up, and there was a large response to the disasters in the East.  By March, 1188, the kings of Germany, France and England, along with their leading nobles, had taken up the cross. 

The king of Sicily sent a fleet, as well.  Recruitment had by now become more professional and campaign strategies were carefully planned, much more so than during the first two Crusades.  A profits tax had been put in place in France and England, known as the Saladin tithe. 

In Jerusalem, things were dire for the Christians.  Saladin, his brother, King Henry II of England, and other wealthy people paid money to release about 10,000 prisoners in Jerusalem.  No buildings were looted and no one was killed.  Saladin released all the old who could not pay the ransom for freedom.  Some 15,000 Christians were sent to Damascus and sold as slaves, drastically reducing the prices and values of the slave market there.  The Pope, Urban III, fell into a swoon when he learned about the disaster in Jerusalem and died.  I would like to briefly interject that Saladin’s reputation for mercy has been greatly exaggerated.  He was a man of his time, as the crusaders were men of theirs, and the times were brutal and violent.  It was the custom at that era not to sack or murder inhabitants of a city that surrendered rather than conquered. 

In May, 1189, Frederick Barbarossa, the German King and Holy Roman Emperor, raised a formidable 100,000 man army.  Despite lack of help from the Byzantine Empire, which we have learned by now was a routine occurrence, he forged his way to the River Saleph in Cilicia.  Trying to cross, he tragically was drowned, and his huge army fell apart.  Only a small rump reached Acre.

Richard I of England, known as Richard the Lionhearted, and Phillip II of France decided to travel together, due to a tricky political situation between their two nations. 

But Richard, with his vastly superior military and administrative skills, soon became the effective leader of their forces. Richard was also helped by his very large cash reserves.  Phillip reached Acre in 1191, but Richard’s large fleet was driven off course by a storm to Cyprus.  Richard was infuriated by the independent Cypriot Greek ruler’s mistreatment of some portions of the English army and took up arms against him.  He had conquered the entire island by May.  Then he proceeded to Acre in June of 1191.  The city surrendered after six weeks.  But Phillip, envious of and disliking Richard’s ascendancy, pleaded illness and business at home in France, and abandoned the Crusade.  Most of his followers showed their disdain by remaining.  In August, Richard started his march to Jerusalem.

Since neither side ever gained enough power or military advantage to decisively win, an attempt at political negotiation was made, but not before military action was tried. In September of 1191, Richard defeated Saladin’s attempt to drive the Crusaders into the sea at Arsuf.  This battle was the major conflict of the campaigns and Saladin was unable to prevail.  Interestingly, Richard was twice within twelve miles of Jerusalem. Each time, Richard turned back, claiming he did not have enough troops to take or keep Jerusalem.  His course was prudent, but it definitely raised the question of why he was in Palestine at all.

I would like to point out at this juncture that the savagery of these wars fell mainly on the common people and soldiers.  This fact is not withstanding that very often the rulers contracted illnesses and suffered wounds that were extremely debilitating.  Most of the Western kings and nobles fought the Crusade battles alongside their troops, as did most of the Saracens. 

Nevertheless, the commoners suffered greatly during these campaigns and with the subsequent defeats of their cities or forts.

 For example, Richard, raging over Saladin’s delay at signing a treaty with him, had taken the Moslem prisoners at Acre to the Hill of Ayyadieh. Richard wanted to frighten Saladin into agreeing to restore the pre-1187 Christian Kingdom in Jerusalem. In full view of Saladin’s headquarters, the Christian troops butchered all the prisoners- about 3,000 men, women and children.  They axed off their heads and then, as per the usual custom, sliced up the dead bodies’ intestines, looking for gold and silver coins they may have swallowed to hide them. 

Richard the Lionhearted behaved as a soldier of his time.  Moslems who captured a Christian fort usually killed all the soldiers, except for knights, who could produce a ransom.  It was the custom for officers on both sides to treat each other with courtesy, while the foot soldiers were generally butchered, sold into slavery or left to starve and make their way back to safety on their own, if they could.  If by now, you have a picture of the Crusades as savage and uncivilized wars, you are correct.  But what war is not savage and uncivilized? And did not and do not the common people suffer the most in the campaigns of the past and the struggles of the present day?  War is always a pernicious undertaking.  And these wars, fueled very significantly by religious ideology, were among the worst.  The trail of blood we are following leads from one holy Crusade to another.

Saladin was not able to take the strategic port of Jaffa in 1192, nor was Richard able to come up with a cogent scheme to weaken Saladin’s power base in Egypt. 

Richard and his troops attempted to rebuild Jaffa in the interim, which was to be a center for the attack on Jerusalem.  By the way, during many of their attempts on Jerusalem, Christian heralds would summon the troops to prayer with the cry:”Free the Holy Sepulcher!” They might be called to prayer two or three times a night.  Richard himself was known to keep prayer vigils until dawn.  A chronicler wrote that the troops would “cry copious tears, asking god for aid and mercy.” One wonders if they asked for some undisturbed sleep under their breaths.

Saladin was asked to negotiate many times by Richard. Saladin would not accept any formal Christian authority in Jerusalem, but he was open to some type of Palestinian partition.  Does this type of solution sound similar to negotiations in the Middle East during the present day?  According to Tyerman, “The Treaty of Jaffa, in September of 1192, left the Franks in control of the coast from Acre to Jaffa and allowed access to Jerusalem for pilgrims and freedom of movement between Muslim and Christian territories.” Richard sailed home in October.  Saladin died less than six months after signing the Treaty of Jaffa.

Interestingly enough, the Third Crusade set the pattern for later Eastern Crusades.  The new kingdom of Jerusalem, which endured until 1291, was supported by sea action for military campaigns rather than land troops.  Cyprus, in Western control until 1571, was an important ally for the mainland settlements of the Western Franks.

The Third Crusade was also a prototype for many innovations which became standard Crusade practices. 

The customary methods now became diplomacy and truces between Moslems and Christians, the continued attempted subjugation of Egypt, and as mentioned earlier, the increased professionalism of preaching and recruitment for the Crusades, as well as the imposition of taxation by church or state to finance them.  A more detailed theology of violence was laid out that enumerated the obligations and privileges of the Crusaders.  Gradually, as the earlier goal to simply regain Jerusalem shifted to more complex endeavors in the East, the terminology for the Crusades changed as well.  The Crusade vocabulary transitioned from calling the wars the Jerusalem Journey, to Business for the Holy Land, and finally, the Holy Business.

Now we come to Pope Innocent III and the Fourth Crusade, 1198-1204. This Crusade was begun by the Pope, who saw various threats to the Church, many unrelated to the Holy Land.  However, Innocent III seemed to believe that all Christians had an obligation to pursue a Holy War.  There had been treaties and agreements for nearly a century between Christians and Moslems. Furthermore, the thin strip of Palestinian coast the Crusaders had peeled off from the Third Crusade proved very viable commercially. Saladin’s heirs and the Crusaders usually came to agreements without going to war.

But the new Pope found the recovery of the Holy Land an urgent object.  He was easily able to enlist powerful Northern French Barons and an important Northern Italian nobleman by 1201. However, without royal participation, this Crusade could not have access to taxation for funding or a fleet of ships, so the crusaders were forced to end up turning to Venice, a wealthy Italian port.

The crafty Venetians were promised a large fee and unrealistically were led to believe that a much larger number of crusaders would be participating than was truly the case.  By the summer of 1202, it was both obvious there were far less crusaders than expected, and that the promised fee could not be paid to Venice.  The Venetians had committed fifty warships of their own to the Crusades as well as the entire year’s shipping, and thus their yearly income.  They could not cancel the debt or drop the Crusade.  So, always clever even when deceived, they told the crusaders they would put a moratorium on the debt if the crusaders would help Venice capture the port of Zara, a Christian city, which belonged to King Emeric of Hungary, a fellow crusader.  Many Europeans were disgusted by the Fourth Crusade’s agreement to fight against a Christian city, and the pope was very displeased.  Nevertheless, the Fourth Crusade and the Venetians won Zara in November 1202.

Now further action against fellow Christians was discussed.  The Venetians and the crusaders began to think of a diversion to Constantinople.  The tangled Byzantine Empire once again asked for help from the West.  Alexius Angelus, the son of the deposed King, Isaac II, promised finances and troop subsidization for an attack on Egypt if the crusaders would help him take the throne from his usurping uncle, Alexius III. Alexius III had blinded his deposed brother, Isaac, a favorite sport of some of the Byzantine emperors when they wanted to rid themselves of competitors.

Many crusaders withdrew from such a campaign against Christians, even though Eastern Christians, but most of the soldiers went on to Constantinople and put Isaac and Alexius, now Alexius IV, on the throne.  However, the Greeks were disgusted by the restored monarchs’ dependence on the loutish Franks and were unhappy with the restored rulers. The two monarchs also did not have the means to fulfill their promise of aid to the Crusaders, and this failure meant lack of crusader support of the new regime.

In January 1204, the two monarchs were deposed and killed by Alexius V, Ducas Mourtzouphlos. Dealing with the Byzantine Greeks was always a perilous maneuver.  The new emperor commenced hostile maneuvers against the crusaders.  In March of 1204, the Western leaders agreed to conquer and partition the Byzantine Empire.  By the middle of April, they had breached the walls of Constantinople and Alexius V fled.  The crusaders were allowed three days of infamous pillaging.

 Byzantine nobles were forced to jump from the walls and splatter to the ground beneath.  The Franks laughed nonstop at this sport.  Women and prepubescent girls were raped as were Greek nuns.  Blood flowed everywhere.  Soldiers entered homes, shops and buildings and took whatever they wanted.  Western nobles seized the palaces of the Greek patricians and divided them up.  Gold was stripped from the Eastern Christian churches, as were jewels.  Bronze statues from Ancient Greece were melted down.  Constantinople was a rich and beautiful city with many items to pillage.  Most of the ransacking, however, was merely senseless violence. We should not forget- this was a Christian city besieged by Christian soldiers.  The Holy Business had turned on itself, forgetting Jerusalem and Egypt. 

During their granted anarchy, the Franks, most of whom could not read, also set fire to the great libraries of Constantinople, destroying important works from Classical Greece- philosophy, plays, and histories. 

Classics vital to Western culture vanished forever.  Some scholars believe the reports of the pillage were somewhat exaggerated, but even if they were, the murder, theft, and intellectual destruction were incalculably heinous.  By the way, this war of Christian on Christian and the subsequent destruction took place during the Christian holy season of Lent.

Hopes of continuing to Egypt were abandoned. The Latin Empire of Constantinople lasted until 1261, and the Western occupation of parts of Greece for centuries. Every Western expedition had considered Constantinople since 1147.  Successive popes were extremely disappointed by the Greek lack of contribution to conquering the Holy Land.  So the crusaders’ capture of Constantinople cannot be considered an accident.  It was simply that circumstances had arisen by 1204 to make the conquest of Constantinople by the West not merely viable but necessary.  Christian now fought and conquered Christian, and the city of Jerusalem was temporarily forgotten.

However, religion never rests and so we shall glance briefly at the last important Crusade, the Fifth Crusade, 1213- 29.  The increased institutionalism of the practice of crusading was demonstrated by the methods of the Fifth Crusade. The new Holy War was definitely an aspect of Christian revivalism and evangelism. A new papal bull was issued to help along the latest endeavor. The new bull allowed people to send a proxy or a sum of money to the Fifth Crusade and still have the remission of all their sins for their reward. They were not required to go to the East as participants.  Such people were negatively referred to as “ashy,” which meant that they preferred to stay home and enjoy the comfort of their home fireplaces. 

The 1215 Fourth Lateran Council, which, if you will remember from previous lectures of mine, was so important to Church doctrine, also authorized universal clerical taxation for the cause.  Recruitment, propaganda, and finances on a massive scale were masterfully orchestrated.  Most of the recruits did not come from France this time, but from Germany, Central Europe, Italy and the British Isles. 

I am glossing over this last important Crusade, but by 1222, it had suffered a large setback in Egypt. The Pope had put Frederick II of Germany in command but Frederick continued to remain in Europe. Lack of leadership and divisions among the crusaders hampered the fighting.  However, recruitment went on, and in 1227, Frederick II embarked for the East. Unfortunately, he fell seriously ill and immediately went back home.  The exasperated Pope Gregory IX excommunicated him. 

Frederick was not daunted by the papal excommunication, and in 1228, he sailed back to the Holy Land.  By exploiting the disputes and rivalries between the rulers of Egypt and Syria, he was able to agree to a treaty with Egypt’s Sultan by February 1229.  The treaty restored Jerusalem to the Franks, guaranteed that the city would be open to all and that Haram al-Sharif, the Temple Mount, would remain under the dominion of Islamic religious authorities.  The arrangement, according to historians, was similar to ones made in Jerusalem after 1967.  Frederick’s peaceful negotiation was despised, and when he embarked for the West from Acre in 1229, the crowds pelted him with offal.  Common sense was not a strong point with the religious at that time, and we know from history and current events that it never has been.

There was a slight interruption in 1240, but Jerusalem remained in Christian hands until 1244.  In that year, Khwarazmian raiders, Turkish freebooters, or mercenaries, paid by the Sultan of Egypt, captured Jerusalem, which remained in Muslim control until 1917.

I wish to discuss the philosophy and culture of Holy War, so I am stopping with the Fifth Crusade.  But the Crusades kept on, at first optimistic, then grim, then increasingly desperate, until the new threat of the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans and the Aegean became urgent from the 1350’s and again in the middle of the 14th Century.  The focus of Holy War became redirected from the Levant.

There were no heroes in this long, heinous campaign to conquer the Holy Land.  The Crusaders, the Moslems, and the Byzantine Greeks were all motivated by religious zealotry, greed, power, land hunger and glory.  Only the Byzantines were not primarily motivated by religion, although they often described themselves as champions of Christ and always gave a pious nod to the church. The waste of human life and resources during these campaigns was astounding.  There are scholars who argue that we in the contemporary world are left with many of the consequences of the Crusades’ violent, treacherous and absurd battles.

I would like to spend the final portion of this lecture on the religious justification for the Crusades that so heavily motivated both Christians and Islam.  I am not discounting the Byzantine Greeks, but the majority of their battles were secular in nature, with, as I have mentioned, a pious nod to religion. 

For the purpose of designating religion as a large motivator in the Crusades, I shall look at the concepts of jihad in Islam and that of the just war in Christianity.

I am very dependent on the scholars listed in the bibliography at the end of this lecture for my comments on Islam and jihad.  All Muslims are enjoined to practice jihad.  There are basically two stated types of jihad, which emanate from classic Islamic theory in the 7th and 8th Centuries, but possibly later.  The greater jihad is individual, a struggle for personal purity.  This type of struggle is somewhat similar to the Christian St. Paul’s military metaphors for achieving a Christian life.  Then there is the jihad, considered a lesser struggle, against the infidels. The struggle against unbelievers was often, but not always, a communal activity rather than an individual one. Some scholars state that jihad is an obligation on all Muslims. Jihad has been described as fundamental to the Muslim faith, a sixth pillar, but there are Sunnis who reject the concept and believe there should only be five pillars of the faith.  Other sects reject the sixth pillar, as well.  The concept of jihad appears fluid and ill-defined to many Westerners.

There were also the concepts in the Muslim religion of the House of Islam and the House of War.  I am only going to discuss the understanding of these two ideas during the Crusade years. I shall leave the contemporary elucidation to qualified scholars. House of Islam referred to countries where citizens lived under Muslim rule and the Holy Law of Islam. A grudging acceptance of other religions was guaranteed by Islamic texts. 

This idea was especially extended to the People of the Book, Jews and Christians, who were forced to pay a tax if living in Muslim countries rather than convert to Islam.  The House of War referred to lands where Muslims resided that were not under the Law of Islam.

According to the House of War concept, non-Muslim political structures and individuals were open to attack.  The reason for this was the belief that the whole world must surrender to Islam, or rather, its particular belief in god, through conversion or subjugation. According to scholars, before the spiritual revival of the 12th Century, there had been little attention paid in the Middle East to martial rather than spiritual jihad.  It is a moot point if the aggressive Christian Crusades or a fundamentalist religious revival coming from further East contributed to the military fanaticism of some Islamic groups in the 12th Century.  Both factors played into the Moslem activity against the Christian crusaders.

It is a mistake to equate the genesis, nature and implementations of the contemporary jihad with that of the Crusades.  According to my sources, and I quote: “It (the jihad) operated and operates in a very different ideological and religious value system, with different inspirations and justifications.”  I am not claiming that the concept of jihad was better or worse than Christian justifications of a just war, only that it was different and hard to equate.  It had, and still has, the same power to inspire obsessive devotion that sometimes leads to consequences, often bloody ones, for its victims.

There is also the issue of forced conversions, which Islam has been accused of through the ages. 

Forced conversion of Christians and others to Islam has been a greater factor in other conflicts and countries than those of the Crusades.  Pope Urban, in his Clermont speech of 1095, referred to claims that male Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land were being forcibly circumcised.  There have been a few references to a battle or two during the Crusades when conquered Christians were compelled to be circumcised and converted to Islam.  All in all, the heinous issue of coerced circumcision and conversion to Islam does not seem to have been a strong motivation for warfare during the Crusades.  Religion was definitely a large and important factor in the earlier Eastern wars of conquest when Muslims conquered so much territory, even Jerusalem, in 638. It was also a large factor, as we have seen, in the Third Crusade.

As for the Christian Crusades, the holy wars did not mark the beginning of Christian violence and racism.  Christianity had a long history of violent warfare prior to 1095, as we have seen in some of the lectures in this series.  However, Holy War was rendered special by the plenary indulgences proffered to its participants, and by its stated goal, which elevated it to greater standing.  This goal was the possession and protection of the Holy Sepulcher.  In addition, because Jerusalem had been in possession of the Roman Empire, the Christian Western rulers and the Western Catholic Church believed Jerusalem should belong to them.  They insisted they were the extension and the heirs of the original Roman Empire. All holy wars were considered just wars, although not all wars could be called holy.  The Crusades were definitely placed in the category of holy war.

To understand the development of the ideas of Holy War, it is necessary to look back to Christianity’s earlier centuries. Christianity evolved very indirectly as a scriptural faith. 

Christian foundational texts needed translation and interpretation to be of use in the workings of a practical church.  The early Church Fathers, the most notable of whom were Augustine, Origen, Ambrose and Gregory I, provided arguments to reconcile texts such as the Beatitudes with the practices of the Graeco-Roman world.  Paul’s metaphorical spiritual/military vocabulary and themes were fertile grounds to justify actual military violence in a Christian cause.

 While there were many interpretations of scripture that justified Christian violence and war, reaching back many years, the concept of holy war attained its full flowering with the Crusades.  Christian theologians found additional justifications for sacred war in the Old Testament and in John’s description of a violent Last Judgment in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. St. John’s Last Judgment was replete with references to celestial armies, smote nations and violence approving texts, with the advice to: “trod the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of the almighty God.” (Rev. 19: 11-15.) 

St. Augustine (d. 430,) was quite conversant with the Hellenic-Roman legal idea of right causes and ends.  He added a Christian ingredient of moral virtue to both right intent and authority.  These ideas can be found in his writings concerning war: just cause, either defensive or to regain rightful possessions, legitimate authority, and right intent by participants.  His justification of war looked back to the wars of the Old Testament, and Augustine cleverly moved the concept of just war to a new stage: sacred or holy war. 

Augustine’s words helped form the basis of just war presented by later theologians such as Thomas of Aquinas (1225-74.)  Augustine went on to state that the commandment forbidding killing was not broken by those who have waged war with the authority of god.  Even while melding the concepts of just war and holy war, Augustine never truly defined it. Therefore, his new concept had a plasticity which was very useful during the entire next century and, as we have seen, in the following centuries as well. The outcome of his fusion of ideas has been defined in this manner: “The fusion…might conveniently be called religious wars, wars conducted by and for the Church, sharing features of holy wars and just wars, a protean blend that allowed war to become valued as an expression of Christian vocation second only to monasticism itself.”

The dissolution of the Roman Empire was followed by the German successor states to the Empire from the 5th Century. The Catholic Church was most engaged in the conversion of the German warlords and had to recognize their culture to win them over.  The German gods were tribal ones, who delivered earthly victory and rewards.  Such accommodation of the German converts to Catholicism created an interesting merger- the warrior ethic became Christianized and the Church became militarized.  Conversion did not lead to an ethos of peace, but more justification for holy war. 

If you remember, in my lecture on “The Early Christian Church and Its War on Reason,” at, Constantine converted to, and elevated, Christianity to its leading role in Western culture in the 4th Century.  However, in the process, Christ became depicted as a warrior, a god who marched in front of the army. 

Charlemagne (d. 814,) Clovis the Frank and Oswald of Northumbria are only a few of the martial heroes of the evolving historical Christianity.  Such militarism could be depicted as exercising violence in the style and spirit of the Old Testament Moses. Carl Erdmann, the great German historian of crusade mentality, stated that war during the time of the Crusades was seen as providing “a form of moral action, a higher type of life than peace.” While there were many interpretations of scripture that justified Christian violence and war, reaching back many years, the concept of holy war attained its full flowering with the Crusades.    

In addition, the Western Church’s religious concept was changing in the 11th and 12th centuries, from local saints and liturgies, to one of universal uniformity and canon law.  The devotion to saints and relics (relics of the Holy Land and of Constantinople were greatly prized during the Crusades,) became increasingly universal.  There was more emphasis on the historicity of the Gospel tales- Christ’s suffering and resurrection, the cult of the Virgin Mary, the Christocentrism of the mass, and the celebration of Easter- all these elements combined into a universal and international belief system.

Such an increased uniform and encompassing faith totality began to place greater emphasis on salvation.  Many lay nobles and knights, as well as soldiers, had become increasingly uneasy about their violent acts in feudal skirmishes and wars.  The Church, beginning around 1095, as we have seen, described participation in the Crusades as penance, and promised that going to Jerusalem for Holy War brought about the remission of all confessed sins committed by the crusading warriors.  The Crusades were elevated from armed pilgrimages to Holy War. 

This was a new, shining version of a very old practice- violence elevated into justice on behalf of putative communal welfare.

Perhaps the Crusades had some actual justification in the attempt to halt the expansion of Islam, as I mentioned earlier.  But the waste of life, wealth and the savage sackings of cities and towns were heinous and unnecessary.  So were the pogroms against Jewish communities as a by-product of the concept of violence against the so-called enemies of Christ, grievous folly dignified by Church sanction.  How can justification be given for the burning of the great libraries of Constantinople, with the consequent permanent loss of many great works from classical Greece?

The primary motive for joining in the Crusades was religious.  The end came, finally, when the last Latin Christian outposts on the Levantine shore were systematically destroyed around 1291 by the Egyptian Sultans to prevent any prospect of return by the crusading armies.  Wealthy pilgrims and some friars who acted as guides to the holy spots trickled into the East, and Western sponsored coastal raids continued into the 15th Century.

Historians will continue to argue the merits and necessity of the Crusades and their long-term effects for some time to come.  The current events of our time, both concretely and symbolically underlined by the terrible attacks on American targets on September 11, 2001, have increased the interest in the conflicts between East and West.  The Crusades are sometimes seen as a foreshadowing of the warfare between two cultures with large cultural, economic and religious differences.  Interest in the Crusades has grown, and they are seen as quite relevant to our frightening and divisive times. 

Many historians of the Crusades disagree that the medieval holy wars caused or resemble the contemporary divide.

I shall close with quotations from Steven Runciman, the great Crusade historian, and then from the Scottish/British Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, also a respected historian.  Steve Runciman condemned the entire Crusade enterprise as “one long act of intolerance in the name of God.” I am leaving the final epitaph on the Crusades to Hume, who called them: …the most signal and durable monument to human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation.”

Video of Lecture:  Introduction to the Crusades: An Atheist Perspective

Lecture:  Introduction to the Crusades: An Atheist Perspective

Video of Discussion: Introduction to the Crusades: An Atheist Perspective

Discussion: Introduction to the Crusades: An Atheist Perspective


Note: According to the excellent historian, Christopher Tyerman, the four most popular categories of scholars who research the Crusades are traditionalists, generalists, popularists and pluralists. Generalists, according to Tyerman, locate the origins and nature of crusading in the long development of Christian Holy War before 1095. Popularists favor the idea that crusading emerged as an expression of popular piety. Traditionalists insist on the centrality of Jerusalem and the Holy Land to legitimate crusading. Pluralists concentrate on pious motivation, canon law and papal authorization to include all conflicts enjoying the privileges of wars of the cross regardless of destination or purpose.

Barber, Malcolm.  The New Knighthood. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Erdman, Charles R.  The Origins of the Idea of Crusading. Trs. Marshall W. Baldwin and Walter Goffart.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977.  The classic generalist text.

Hillenbrand, Carole.  The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

Housley, Norman.  The Later Crusades.  New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pluralist text.

Kernaghan, Pamela and Tony McAleavy.  New York; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Madden, Thomas.  A Concise History of the Crusades.  New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.

Riley-Smith, Jonathan.  What Were the Crusades?  Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977. Pluralist Text.

Runciman, Steven.  A History of the Crusades. 2 Vol. New York: Harper and Row, 1965. Traditionalist.  This work has been described as the last great medieval chronicle.

Tyerman, Christopher.  England and the Crusaders: 1095- 1588. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1988.

_______________. The Crusades: A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Contains an excellent bibliography.