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The Crusades: Consequences & Effects

The Crusades: Consequences & Effects

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The crusades of the 11th to 15th century CE have become one of the defining events of the Middle Ages in both Europe and the Middle East. The campaigns brought significant consequences wherever they occurred but also pushed changes within the states that organised and fought them. Even when the crusades had ended, their influence continued through literature and other cultural means and, resurrected as an idea in more modern times, they continue today to colour international relations.

Many exaggerated claims have been made concerning the effects and consequences of the crusades on life in the Middle Ages and later. There were, undoubtedly, momentous changes in life, politics and religion from the 11th to 14th centuries CE, but it is perhaps prudent to heed the words of historian and acclaimed Crusades expert T. Asbridge:

The precise role of the Crusades remains debatable. Any attempt to pinpoint the effect of this movement is fraught with difficulty, because it demands the tracing and isolation of one single thread within the weave of history - and the hypothetical reconstruction of the world, were that strand to be removed. Some impacts are relatively clear, but many observations must, perforce, be confined to broad generalisations. (664-5)

The impact of the Crusades may thus be summarised in general terms as:

  • an increased presence of Christians in the Levant during the Middle Ages.
  • the development of military orders.
  • a polarisation of the East and West based on religious differences.
  • the specific application of religious goals to warfare in the Levant, Iberian peninsula, and Baltic region, in particular.
  • the increased role and prestige of the popes and the Catholic Church in secular affairs.
  • the souring of relations between the West and the Byzantine Empire leading, ultimately, to the latter's destruction.
  • an increase in the power of the royal houses of Europe.
  • a stronger collective cultural identity in Europe.
  • an increase in xenophobia and intolerance between Christians and Muslims, and between Christians and Jews, heretics and pagans.
  • an increase in international trade and exchange of ideas and technology.
  • an increase in the power of such Italian states as Venice, Genoa, and Pisa.
  • the appropriation of many Christian relics to Europe.
  • the use of a religious historical precedent to justify colonialism, warfare and terrorism.

Middle East & Muslim World

The immediate geopolitical results of the crusades was the recapture of Jerusalem on 15 July 1099 CE, but to ensure the Holy City stayed in Christian hands it was necessary that various western settlements were established in the Levant (collectively known as the Latin East, the Crusader States or Outremer). For their defence, a steady supply of new crusaders would be needed in the coming decades and military orders of professional knights were created there such as the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller. These, in turn, inspired the formation of chivalric orders like the Order of the Garter in England (founded 1348 CE) which advocated the benefits of crusading on their members.

Despite the militarised presence in the Holy Land, the continued recruitment drive in Europe, and increased involvement of kings and emperors, it proved impossible to hold on to the gains of the First Crusade and more campaigns were required to recapture such cities as Edessa and Jerusalem itself after its fall again in 1187 CE. There would be eight official crusades and several other unofficial ones throughout the 12th and 13th centuries CE, which all met with more failure than success, and in 1291 CE the Crusader States were absorbed into the Mamluk Sultanate.

Travel became more common, initially in the form of pilgrimage to the Holy Land & there developed a thirst to read about such journeys which were widely published.

The Muslim world had, prior to the crusades, already embarked on jihad - often translated as 'holy war' but meaning, more accurately, a 'striving' to both defend and expand Islam and Islamic territories. Despite the religious significance of Jerusalem to Muslims, the coastal Levant area was only of minor economic and political importance to the caliphates of Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. The Muslim world was itself divided into various Muslim sects and beset by political rivalries and competition between cities and regions. The crusades did provide an opportunity for greater unity in order to face this new threat from the West, but it was not always an opportunity taken. Some rulers, most famously Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria (r. 1174-1193 CE), did employ the propaganda of religious warfare to present themselves as the chosen leader of the Muslim world to help them gain supremacy within it.

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The Spread of The Crusades

The crusader movement spread to Spain where, in the 11th-13th century CE, attacks were made against the Muslim Moors there, the so-called Reconquista (Reconquest). Prussia and the Baltic (the Northern Crusades), North Africa, and Poland, amongst many other places, would also witness crusading armies from the 12th up to the 15th century CE as the crusading ideal, despite the dubious military successes, continued to appeal to leaders, soldiers, and ordinary people in the West. Finally, the crusades as an idea would have reached just about everyone in Europe by the 14th century CE, and the majority of people would have sat through at least one sermon preaching their merits and heard the need for recruitment and material support. Indeed, very few people's pockets would have remained untouched by the state and church taxes which were regularly imposed to pay for the crusades.

The Catholic Church

The success of the First Crusade and the image that popes directed the affairs of the whole Christian world helped the Papacy gain supremacy over the Hohenstaufen emperors. The Catholic Church had also created a new fast-track entry into heaven with the promise that crusaders would enjoy an immediate remission of their sins - military service and penance were intermixed so that crusading became an act of devotion. However, with each new failed campaign, papal prestige declined, although in Spain and north-east Europe the territorial successes did promote the Papacy. Another negative consequence for many was the Church's official sanction of the possibility to purchase indulgences. That is if one could not or did not want to go on a crusade in person, giving material aid to others who did so reaped the same spiritual benefits. This idea was extended by the Catholic Church to create a whole system of paid indulgences, a situation which contributed to the emergence of the Reformation of the 16th century CE.

Byzantine Empire

The crusades caused a rupture in western-Byzantine relations. First, there was the Byzantine's horror at unruly groups of warriors causing havoc in their territory. Outbreaks of fighting between crusaders and Byzantine forces were common, and the mistrust and suspicion of their intentions grew. It was a troublesome relationship that only got worse, with accusations of neither party trying very hard to defend the interests of the other. The situation culminated in the shocking sacking of Constantinople on 1204 CE during the Fourth Crusade, which also saw the appropriation of art and religious relics by European powers. The Empire became so debilitated it could offer little resistance to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE.


The power of the royal houses of Europe and the centralisation of government increased thanks to an increase in taxes, the acquisition of wealth in the Middle East, and the imposition of tariffs on trade. The death of many nobles during crusades and the fact that many mortgaged their land to the crown in order to pay for their campaigns and those of their followers also increased royal power. There was a decline in the system of feudalism, too, as many nobles sold their lands to fund their travels, freeing their serfs in the process.

The conquest of the Muslim-held territories in southern Italy, Sicily, and the Iberian peninsula gave access to new knowledge, the so-called 'New Logic'. There was also a greater feeling of being 'European', that despite differences between states, the people of Europe did share a common identity and cultural heritage (although crusading would be incorporated into ideals of chivalry which widened the gulf between those who were and those who were not members of the knightly class). The other side of the cultural coin was an increase in xenophobia. Religious intolerance manifested itself in many ways, but most brutally in the pogroms against the Jews (notably in northern France and the Rhineland in 1096-1097 CE) and violent attacks on pagans, schismatics and heretics across Europe.

Trade between East and West greatly increased. More exotic goods entered Europe than ever before, such as spices.

Trade between East and West greatly increased. More exotic goods entered Europe than ever before, such as spices (especially pepper and cinnamon), sugar, dates, pistachio nuts, watermelons, and lemons. Cotton cloth, Persian carpets, and eastern clothing came, too. The Italian states of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa grew rich through their control of the Middle East and Byzantine trade routes, which was in addition to the money they raked in from transporting crusader armies and their supplies. This was happening anyway, but the crusades probably accelerated the process of international trade across the Mediterranean.

Travel became more common, initially in the form of pilgrimage to the Holy Land and there also developed a thirst to read about such journeys which were widely published. The age of exploration had begun and would lead to the discovery of the New World where the concept of a crusade against non-believers was once more applied. Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of the Aztecs, claimed his followers were milites Christi or 'Knights of Christ' waging a guerra santa or 'Holy War'.

Into the Modern Era

The crusades cast a very long shadow indeed, with works of art, literature and even wars endlessly recalling the imagery, ideals, successes and disasters of the holy wars into the 21st century CE. There was a process of hero-worship, even in medieval times, of such figures as Saladin and Richard the Lionhearted who were praised not only for their military skills but, above all, for their chivalry. Following the Reformation, the opposite happened and the crusades were brushed under the historical carpet as a brutal and undesirable aspect of our past that was best forgotten.

The 19th century CE saw a return of interest in the West with such novels as Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman (1825 CE). With the Allied occupation of Palestine in the First World War in the 20th century CE, the ghosts of the Crusaders came back to haunt the present in the form of propaganda, rhetoric, and cartoons. By the Second World War, the very term 'crusade' was, conversely, stripped of its religious meaning and applied to the campaigns against Nazi Germany. General Eisenhower, the U.S. commander of the allied forces, even gave his 1948 CE account of the campaign the title Crusade in Europe.

Most recently, the 21st-century CE fight against terrorism has frequently been couched in terms of a 'crusade', most infamously by U.S. President George W. Bush following the Twin Towers attack in 2001 CE. With the rise of Arab nationalism, the debate over the position and validity of the state of Israel, and the continued interventionist policies of western powers in the Middle East, the secular goals of territorial control and economic power have been mixed and confused with divisions of religion so that terms such as 'crusade', 'Christian', 'Muslim', and 'jihad' continue, in both the East and West, to be used with ignorance and prejudice as labels of convenience by those who strive to make history instead of learning from it.

How the Crusades Worked

After all this fighting, you'd think that the Crusades would have left immense impacts on the world. However, historians today attribute very little of what happened next in Europe or the Middle East to the Crusades [source: Madden]. They generally believe that while the Crusades were significant at the time, they didn't really change the face of Europe or the Middle East any more than those faces would have naturally changed and evolved.

Economic impacts were felt in Europe the Crusades caused a decrease in European wealth, as Crusaders had invested substantially to go to the Holy Lands. Some positive impacts were felt in Italy although they had been trading with the East prior to the Crusades, they essentially dominated the entire Mediterranean by the end of them.

One of the more lasting impacts was on the relationship between the Greek and Latin churches. The bitter relations throughout the Crusades, culminating in the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, put an end to any sense of possible reconciliation between the East and West.

Essentially, though, it seems that fighting between Western Europeans and Muslims simply stopped, and each turned their attentions to other matters [source: Madden]. In Europe, religion was no longer a central identifying force. And as it emerged from the Dark Ages, the Crusades were seen as nothing more than the hysteria of the time.

Each succeeding generation has presented its own version of the story of the Crusades. And those versions inform how we view the Crusades today. The Romantics idealized the Middle Ages, pointing to the chivalry of knights and the piety of the people. During the rise of French nationalism in the 1800's, the French highlighted the Crusades as the country's first attempt to bring western civilization to the world. By the time of World War I, the Crusades were used like propaganda -- they showed how a campaign can be used to meet a morally-just goal. Marxists saw the Crusades as an attempt to address a shortage of resources in Europe and stripped the Crusaders of any religious motivations. History books cemented the reputation of Crusaders as barbarians. And modern-day Christians have called for the pope to apologize for the horrors committed during the Crusades.

Muslims at the time of the Crusades were fighting wars with many groups and saw Christians as just another group of infidels. The first Arabic history of the Crusades was not written until 1899, and it was a constructed memory -- taught to the Muslims by the European colonialists. In the 1950's, when the idea of colonialism and imperialism was discredited by the West, that also discredited the Crusades [source: Madden].

Obviously, this article doesn't even scratch the surface of all that transpired during the Crusades. Links to the works of scholars who have devoted their lives to studying and writing about the Crusades, as well as some related How Stuff Works articles, are below.

1.3: Consequences of the Crusades

  • Christopher Brooks
  • Full-time faculty (History) at Portland Community College

The Crusades had numerous consequences and effects. Three were particularly important. First, the city-states of northern Italy, especially Venice, Genoa, and Pisa, grew rich transporting goods and crusaders back and forth between Europe and the Middle East. As the transporters, the merchants, and the bankers of crusading expeditions, it was northern Italians that derived the greatest financial benefit from the invasions. The Crusades provided so much capital that the northern Italian cities evolved to become the banking center of Europe and the site of the Renaissance starting in the fifteenth century.

Second, the ideology surrounding the Crusades was to inspire European explorers and conquerors for centuries. The most obvious instance of this phenomenon was the Reconquest of Spain, which was explicitly seen through the lens of the crusading ideology at the time. In turn, the Reconquest was completed in 1492, precisely the same year that Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas. With the subsequent invasions of South and Central America by the Spanish, the crusading spirit, of spreading Catholicism and seizing territory at the point of a sword, lived on.

Third, there was a new concern with a particularly intolerant form of religious purity among many Christian Europeans during and after the Crusades. One effect of this new focus was numerous outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence in Europe many crusaders attacked Jewish communities in Europe while the crusaders were on their way to the Holy Land, and anti-Jewish laws were enacted by many kings and lords inspired by the fervent, intolerant new brand of Christian identity arising from the Crusades. Thus, going forward, European Christianity itself became harsher, more intolerant, and more warlike because of the Crusades.

What Were the Negative Effects of the Crusades?

Negative effects of the Crusades included the repeated defeats of the Christian armies, the slaughter of innocents and the looting of Constantinople. The destruction of Constantinople severed any hope of mending the East-West schism in Christianity, and this event left the Byzantine Empire vulnerable to the Ottoman Empire.

Massacres during the First Crusade occurred when Count Emicho led a campaign that resulted in the murder of innocent Jews throughout the Rhineland during the First Crusade of 1096. This resulted in strained relations between Jews and Christians. Christian armies also slaughtered men, women and children by the hundreds on their way to capture Jerusalem.

Christian armies suffered numerous defeats throughout the Crusades. For instance, the armies of King Louis VII of France and King Conrad III of Germany were defeated during the Second Crusade at the hands of Muslim armies in Damascus. The Crusaders that occupied Jerusalem were conquered by Muslim ruler Saladin, which prompted the Third Crusade.

The pillaging of Constantinople occurred during the Fourth Crusade. Pope Innocent III toppled Alex III of Byzantine in favor of his nephew, who would later become Alexius IV. Alexius' attempt to impose Roman authority over Byzantine was met with resistance, and he was subsequently killed. The Crusaders declared war on Constantinople, which resulted in the conquest and looting of the city. Churches were also pillaged, and many people were killed.

What were the positive effects of the Crusades?

Though it is hard to find anything beneficial in armed conflict, there were undoubtedly beneficial technological and societal changes that came out of the Crusades for both sides.

The spread of modern banking in Europe

Historians can trace banking as far back as 5,000 years ago in India, Sumeria, and Assyria, and continuing through the Roman Empire.

The rise of Christianity put an end to this, as the Church deemed Usury (interest) a sin. Without interest, money lending quickly lost its popularity except in specific communities like European Jews.

When the Crusades started, the nobility needed to transfer large sums of money across Europe to finance the war. Orders of knights like the Hospitaller and Templar served as bankers in the Middle East.

It expanded further when people began making pilgrimages to the captured city of Jerusalem. Knights Templar began accepting currency and providing demand notes that could be cashed in for any Templar holding throughout Europe and the Middle East.

The removal of the stigma around banking significantly accelerated the adoption of banking until Venice established the first bank in 1157.

The Crusades weakened Feudalism

The Crusades significantly undermined Feudalism, which was the widely adopted political system in Europe during this period. Feudalism depended on a strong aristocracy with a servant class of serfs tied to their lands.

When the Crusades began, knights and lords began mortgaging and selling their lands to fund their expeditions. Thousands squandered this money or perished, causing their lands to revert to the hands of the Monarchy.

By definition, Feudalism depends on the decentralization of power from the Monarch down to the lowest fiefdom. With newfound centralized power, Monarchs no longer depended on their vassals for soldiers and taxes. The Black Death would finish what the Crusades started only a few centuries later.

The Transfer of Ideas

The Crusades placed many people who had never been over 100 miles away from where they were born in direct contact with foreign cultures.

As a result, Middle Eastern culture and ideas began taking root in Europe. One of the most prominent areas was in art and architecture. European castles began adopting the style and functionality of cities and downs found in the Levant. Wall mosaics and illuminated manuscripts also made their way into Western European society.

Muslim knowledge of mathematics and science were far more advanced than Europe’s at this time as well. When Crusaders returned home, they brought this knowledge with them sewing seeds of knowledge that would eventually sprout into the Rennaisance and Age of Discovery.

Expanded trade and urban prosperity

When Rome fell, trade and urban life declined in Eastern Europe. Feudal holdings were mostly self-sufficient units, with outside contact mainly occurring through paying tribute or waring with neighboring lords. Even if people desired to trade, roads were often too unsafe to travel on.

To the East, though, urban life and trade had never declined. Under Muslim rule, cities like Acre, Alexandria, and Tripoli flourished.

Before the Crusades, there was some trade between Italian merchants and Byzantium, as well as with trading hubs like Siciliy, which was under Muslim control at the time. The Crusades expanded this dramatically, by increasing demand.

The thousands of Western Europeans that flooded the Levant began to familiarize themselves with goods they had never seen before. When they returned home, they brought back the knowledge of and demand for these goods.

Initially, it was Italian cities that began to build ties with ports in the Levant. Venice, Florence, and Genoa all prospered during this period. Soon, new trade routes formed inland as Monarchs grew more powerful and able to keep the roads safe. Soon, places like London and Paris began to prosper as well.

Rise of the merchant class

Before the crusades, there was a small class of free artisans and merchants, even in Western Europe. They weren’t tied to the land and were free to travel at will.

When trade began opening up during the Crusades, this class grew and gained power as they began to drive more and more economic activity. By the 15th century, merchants had become the elite class in many European cities and wielded power through large guilds.

Without the growth in the merchant class, European history would be different. Their activities drove mercantilism and, eventually, capitalism, which defines our world today.

Long-Term Effects of the Crusades on the Middle East

Eventually, it was Europe's rebirth and expansion that finally created a Crusader effect in the Middle East. As Europe asserted itself during the 15th through 19th centuries, it forced the Islamic world into a secondary position, sparking envy and reactionary conservatism in some sectors of the formerly more progressive Middle East.

Today, the Crusades constitute a major grievance for some people in the Middle East, when they consider relations with Europe and the West.

Is the world still living in the shadow of the crusades?

For several centuries in the Middle Ages, Christians waged a ‘holy war’ aiming in part – ostensibly, at least – to liberate the Holy Land. Six experts discussed the question for BBC World Histories earlier this year, writing on whether those events, recreated in books, films and firebrand speeches, continue to affect lives and politics in the region and around the globe today

This competition is now closed

Published: November 13, 2019 at 1:15 pm

Suleiman A Mourad: “We invoke the crusades because we want to believe that the past determines the present”

Do we live in the shadow of the crusades? This question suggests a passive role on our part, as if what happened back then explains what happens now. But history is often shaped by what we choose to remember, why and how. History is about the way the present writes the past.

The history of the crusades is told invariably as a savage, religiously inspired clash of civilisations between medieval European Christians and oriental Muslims. We think that this explains (at least in part) modern violence and the political tension between the west and Muslim countries, linking it to what happened centuries ago between the crusaders and the Muslims.

Some do this by habit, others by connivance. Irrespective of motives, our tendency is to stereotype the present and the past, and to reject their complexity. Indeed, when British General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem in 1917, following the defeat of the Ottoman army in southern Palestine, the British media compared him to Richard the Lionheart. When French General Henri Gouraud captured Damascus in 1920, following the French army’s crushing defeat of Arab nationalists, he reputedly stood in front of Saladin’s grave and orated: “Awake, Saladin – we have returned!” Meanwhile, the US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are often denounced by Muslim politicians as crusader invasions.

We invoke the crusades because we want to believe that the past determines the present – that these are but different chapters in the same ongoing conflict – and that many people are adamant that old scores must be settled.

What gets lost in this modern exploitation of crusader history is its complex reality. That period of the Middle Ages witnessed a lot of violence, but also countless cases of cooperation, political and military alliance, exchange of goods and science, and forms of religious tolerance between Muslims and crusaders. When the modern history of the crusades was written, starting in the 19th century, scholars were drawn to its violence. They ignored the other evidence because they found no use for it. When we do, though, the history of the crusades will be written differently.

Suleiman A Mourad is historian of Islam and professor of religion at Smith College, Massachusetts, and associate fellow at the Nantes Institute for Advanced Study, France

Helen Nicholson: “We still live with many of the developments encouraged by the crusades: state taxation, magnificent castles, charitable work”

We are still living with the constructed memory of the crusades, and with the mindset that prompted them. Populist religious and national leaders construct myths around the crusades to promote their religious or political agendas, urging their followers to avenge the crusades or to continue in the footsteps of the crusades.

In addition, the word ‘crusade’ has come to mean any struggle against moral wrong – so we have a crusade against drug abuse, or a crusade against poverty. The human urge to intervene on the side of moral good in order to destroy evil still prompts individuals to join great undertakings couched in moral terms, such as the thousands who travelled from Britain in the 1930s to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, or the young people who joined the so-called Islamic State in Syria.

But were the original crusades a moral battle against evil? Not really. The First Crusade began in 1095 with the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos’s plans to recover territory lost over the previous 20 years to the Seljuq Turks. It evolved into a Frankish-Norman expedition to capture Jerusalem, which had changed hands four times in the preceding three decades. So were the crusades really about controlling land?

By the late 14th century, crusades focused on halting the Ottoman advance into the Balkans – suggesting that the crusades were about defence against an apparently unstoppable enemy. We could compare the crusades to Nato, since crusades involved the co-operation of many nations in an operation of mutual benefit. We could also compare the crusades to the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations, because most Crusades were promoted by the Latin Church, a supra-national organisation. But these comparisons quickly break down under scrutiny.

It would be truer to say that we still live with many of the developments encouraged by the crusades: systems of state taxation, magnificent castles, and the kind of services performed by the likes of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, now the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which undertakes charitable work around the world.

Helen Nicholson is professor of medieval history at Cardiff University

Rebecca Rist: “Many Muslims do not view the crusades, which they believe they won, as markedly special events”

In the modern era, western nations have often looked back with enthusiasm to the crusades, and crusading language has been used by many politicians and movements to justify their actions. In the 17th century, Louis Maimbourg’s History of the Crusades (1675) was used as propaganda for the persecution of Protestants in France during the reign of Louis XIV. In the 19th century, European powers used pseudo-crusading and para-crusading rhetoric to justify their imperial and colonial wars.

In the 20th century, crusades were depicted in political cartoons during the First World War. Crusade rhetoric was also a key feature of America’s Cold War discourse, as employed by presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight D Eisenhower when collaborating with Pius XII (1939–58) to denounce the evils of Stalin and Soviet rule.

More recently, certain American movements – for the abolition of slavery, the war against Mormon polygamy, the prohibition of alcohol, and the civil rights movement headed by Martin Luther King – have been cited as examples of modern crusades.

The word ‘crusade’, then, continues to be used to denote a cause which people believe in strongly such as for human rights or against illegal practices. Yet almost all medieval crusades (except the first) were ultimately failures, unsuccessful in retaking Jerusalem or maintaining the crusader states. In the 19th century, the west’s increasing hegemony – seen in the colonialism, imperialism and trade of that era – began to appear to the Islamic world as an attempt to more than compensate for the failures of medieval crusades. For that reason, and others, the crusades continue to affect how the east views the west today.

Yet many Muslims do not view the crusades, which they believe they won, as markedly special events, since Islam and Christianity have frequently been at odds since the seventh century – long before the First Crusade (1095–99). Hence the crusades are, rather, just one expression of a long-standing rivalry between east and west, Muslim and Christian. It is that legacy with which we are still living today.

Rebecca Rist is professor in medieval history at the University of Reading, and author of Papacy and Crusading in Europe, 1198–1245 (Continuum, 2009)

Nicholas Paul: “The crusades’ legacy is powerful because of the predilections of 19th- and 20th-century Europeans”

Confronted with the message, propagated by both the European and Anglophone extreme right and Islamic jihadist groups, that we live in an age of renewed conflict between Islam and the west, many people may understandably conclude that we have inherited an ancient legacy of holy war. We have – though not in the way that many imagine.

The legacy of the crusades today is not due to the continuity over time of any medieval crusading institution. After all, the crusade indulgence offered by the church – a central element of the architecture of these holy wars – had effectively disappeared by the 17th century. Surviving crusading orders, such as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, are now devoted to charitable work. And no modern state, whether in Spain, the Baltic or the eastern Mediterranean, can trace its origins to the ‘crusader states’ established by medieval conquests. Too much historical water – reformation, revolution, global exchange, the rise and fall of empires, the shock of modernity – has passed under the bridge for any modern community to still bear marks of crusading violence.

The legacy of the crusades is, nonetheless, powerful, primarily because of the passions and predilections of 19th- and 20th-century Europeans. They found in the crusades a useful past through which they sought to understand their own world of overseas empires, warring nations and rapid social change. These modern observers constructed a storehouse of popular images and stories – such as the epic encounter of Richard I and Saladin during the Third Crusade – and used them to make claims about morality and collective identity.

Western Europeans took these images and attitudes abroad – for example, in 1898, when Kaiser Wilhelm II re-enacted the conquest of Jerusalem and rebuilt Saladin’s tomb at Damascus, laying a gilt bronze wreath (later taken by TE Lawrence and now displayed in London’s Imperial War Museum). It was in this modern context that a new historical memory of the crusades was constructed – one that stripped away fundamental elements of crusading history and is easily co-opted by those who would make a ‘clash of civilisations’ seem habitual and inevitable.

Nicholas Paul is associate professor of history at Fordham University, New York, and co-editor of Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past? (Fordham University Press, 2019)

Christopher Tyerman: “The crusades were fought from religious conviction and material advantage relevant to their time and place, not ours”

The question assumes contemporary currency of ‘the crusades’, from its use in Islamist propaganda, to etiolated intellectual debate on a supposed clash of civilisations, to English soccer fans cheerfully dressing up as crusader warriors. Exactly who is ‘still living in the shadow of the crusades’? Distanced western academics? Self-imagined heirs of victims?

The historical crusades were not homogeneous. They affected many communities and regions very differently, from the foundation of Prussia, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christian schism, attacks on European Jewry and the Spanish nationalist myth of the Reconquista, to the transient and peripheral occupation of parts of Syria and Palestine.

The crusades did not create western imperialism or the state of Israel. Wars fought by populist adherence to an ideological or religious ideology may excite modern recognition of a cause – God Wills It! – at once unprovable and unanswerable, but their legacies are imaginative and sentimental.

The 19th-century coincidence of romantic medievalism, Christian mission and the global spread of European empires revived and invented memories of crusading, providing spurious arguments for French and British involvement in north Africa and western Asia. Western proclamation of crusading precedents informed the counter-ideologies of indigenous regional resistance to foreign intervention. Citing historical precedent is often a sign of historical ignorance. Ironically, the bogus ‘West is Best’ neo-imperialist clash-of-civilisation construct encourages its corresponding jihadist twin.

The crusades were fought from religious conviction and material advantage relevant to their time and place, not ours, examples of political and cultural contact as much as of contest and conquest. Their continued legacy derives from pilfering a crude vision of the past to justify contemporary conflict or victimhood. The modern near east is not a product of medieval wars, yet the shadow of the crusades lies across the rhetoric of polemicists. In so far as this influences popular beliefs, the legacy is real in so far as it claims to represent historical continuity, it is not.

Christopher Tyerman is professor of the history of the crusades at Hertford College, University of Oxford

Susanna A Throop: “The crusades popularised specific narratives and key ideas that remain present in western cultures”

There are many legacies of the crusades, and they are disputed. In 2019, actors worldwide are calling for violence framed as either an extension of or a defence against the crusades. These appeals – and the disputes surrounding them – are highly visible in our news cycles.

It is easy to dismiss such calls to violence as historical appropriation or myth-making. Certainly, historical accuracy is not the main priority of those referencing the crusades. But in using the crusades to claim political power, territory and a righteous obligation to be violent, modern actors are doing what many others, including various religious groups and modern nation-states, have done for centuries.

At least two basic narrative structures of crusading remain in use. The first is the story of a divinely willed victory that results in both individual salvation and the profitable expansion of ‘Christendom’ such as we see in descriptions of the Latin Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. The second is the story of a holy and heroic defeat, in which righteous warriors lose the battle but nonetheless win eternal salvation and earthly renown.

Underlying both these narrative structures are several key ideas: that violence on behalf of God is spiritually beneficial both for the individual and for the larger group of which they are a part that divine will is manifest in the world, and thus crusading victory demonstrates righteousness while crusading defeat urges redoubled effort and that there is a connection between holy violence and the assertion of group identity.

These narratives and ideas emphatically did not originate with the crusading movement they can be identified much earlier in the history of Christianity. However, the many centuries of the crusading movement and historical work thereafter consolidated and reiterated them with vivid imagery, legends and traditions. As a result, the history of the crusades has become a ubiquitous part of the western cultural background, referenced in flags, art, family histories, athletics teams and even in the brands of companies and organisations that seem entirely unrelated. In political discourse, the history of the crusades has long been used to support or contest western nationalism and imperialism. The cultural legacy of the crusades is not only visible in the polemics of violent extremists it surrounds us.

Susanna A Throop is associate professor of history at Ursinus College, Pennsylvania, and author of The Crusades: An Epitome (Kismet, 2018)

The impact of the crusades

It is hard to summarize the impact of a movement that spanned centuries and continents, crossed social lines, and affected all levels of culture. However, there are a few central effects that can be highlighted.

Military orders

First, the earliest military orders originated in Jerusalem in the wake of the First Crusade. A miltary order is a religious order in which members take traditional monastic vows—communal poverty, chastity, and obedience—but also commit to violence on behalf of the Christian faith. Well-known examples include the Knights Templar (officially endorsed in 1129), the Knights Hospitaller (confirmed by papal bull in 1113), and the Teutonic Knights (originated in the late twelfth century).

The military orders represented a major theological and military development, and went on to play central roles in the formation of key political units that still exist today as nation-states.

Wall plaque, Ascalon, mid-twelfth to mid-thirteenth century. The Arabic inscription commemorates the wall built as defense against crusaders. The arms of Sir Hugh Wake (Lincoln, England) were later carved over that, confirming the 1241 crusader reconquest of the city.

Territorial expansion

Second, crusading played a major role in European territorial expansion. The First Crusade resulted in the formation of the crusader states in the Levant (the eastern Mediterranean), which were initially governed, and in small part populated, by settlers from Europe.

Crusading in northern and eastern Europe led to the expansion of kingdoms like Denmark and Sweden, as well as the creation of brand-new political units, for example in Prussia. As areas around the Baltic Sea were taken by the crusaders, traders and settlers—mostly German—moved in and profited economically.

In the Mediterranean Sea, crusading led to the conquest and colonization of many islands, which arguably helped ensure Christian control of Mediterranean trade routes (at least for as long as the islands were held). Crusading also played a role in the conquest of the Iberian peninsula (now Spain and Portugal). This was finally completed in 1492, when the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella I conquered the last Muslim community on the peninsula—the city of Granada. They expelled Jews from the country in the same year. And of course, they also authorized and supported the expeditions of Christopher Columbus, who—like many European explorers of his day—believed that the expansion of the Christian faith was one of his duties.

Impact in Europe (religious and secular)

Third, the crusading movement impacted internal European development in a few important ways. The movement helped both to militarize the medieval western Church and to sustain criticism of that militarization. It arguably helped solidify the pope’s control over the Church and made certain financial innovations central to Church operations. And it both reflected and influenced devotional trends. For example, while there was some dedication to St. George from the early Middle Ages, the intensity of that devotion soared in Europe after he reportedly intervened miraculously at the Battle of Antioch in 1098, during the First Crusade.

Secular political theories were influenced by crusading, especially in France and the Iberian peninsula, and government institutions evolved in part to meet the logistical needs of crusading. Credit infrastructures within Europe rose to meet similar needs, and some locales—Venice, in particular—benefitted significantly in economic terms.

It goes without saying that the crusades also had a highly negative effect on interfaith relations.

Impact world-wide

Fourth, the crusading movement has left an imprint on the world as a whole. For example, many of the national flags of Europe incorporate a cross. In addition, many images of crusaders in our popular culture are indebted to the nineteenth century. Some in that century, like the novelist Sir Walter Scott, portrayed crusaders as brave and glamorous yet backward and unenlightened simultaneously, they depicted Muslims as heroic, intelligent, and liberal. Others more wholeheartedly romanticized crusading.

George Inness, Classical Landscape (March of the Crusaders), 1850, oil on canvas (Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Massachusetts)

These trends in nineteenth-century European culture impacted the Islamic world. Sometimes this influence was quite direct. In 1898 German Emperor Wilhelm II visited the grave of Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, a Muslim leader who led the recapture of Jerusalem in 1187) and was appalled at its state of disrepair. He paid to have it rebuilt, thus helping encourage modern Islamic appreciation of Saladin.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, visit to Jerusalem, 1898

Sometimes the European influence was more diffuse. Modern crusading histories in the Islamic world began to be written in the 1890s, when the Ottoman Empire was in crisis. After the Ottomans, some Arab Nationalists interpreted nineteenth-century imperialism as crusading, and thus linked their efforts to end imperial rule with the efforts of Muslims to resist crusading in previous centuries.

It would be reassuring to believe that nobody in the West has provided grounds for such beliefs, but it would not be true. Sadly, the effects of the crusading movement—at least, as it is now remembered and reimagined—seem to be still unfolding.

The Origin of Crusades

These Crusades are reported to be continued until the 17th century. Furthermore, they were widespread in many areas. There are many rumors about the origin of the Crusades. However, the concept emanated from political and moral aspects of the Christians from the West at the 11th century. During that time, Europe was divided into small states, whose leaders dwelt in territorial disputes amidst the threats of the emperor. The emperor, however, quarreled with another monarch from a different state.

Nonetheless, the Popes maintained the unity that was prevalent among all Christians as their interests were at stake, since the other tribes had more power over them. However, it had been set by those, who were in power before the Pope took the docket. This policy had a tremendous effect to Christians as they were able to stand strong, and this aspect was well taken by all Christians. Moreover, the policy stated that the Pope was the only legal person, who could inaugurate the movement that led to the Crusades. The Pope had less power over the other nation, but his command was more powerful.

The Syrian then spread Christianity to different parts of the east, including Egypt and Palestine. The Christians, however, went to these states to visit the holy places. The barbarian invaded the holy places, but this did not make any difference to the Christians. Despite the fact that the Christians were constantly invaded by the Arabs over the time of 600 years, their spirit was not dampened. Nevertheless, this invasion made it difficult for the Christians to run the holy places.

In the 8th century, Anglo-Saxon went through hardships, while travelling to Jerusalem. They decided to streamline these conditions that the Latins went through. The Christians discovered that the alms were constantly taken to the Holy Land from the West. At that time, during the 10th century, Europe was troubled to a considerable degree. Their social and political prospects were dwindling, and it had caused a lot of mayhem amidst them. The leaders of Christianity opted to traverse the Holy Land to pray without any interruption from the Muslims.

At that particular time, the leader of the Muslims in Egypt ordered the destruction of the Holy Land and buildings that were erected in Jerusalem. This was followed by the persecution of the Christians, who were tortured and killed by the Muslims. The leader, however, defeated the Frankish protectorate and managed to overthrow all those in power and take over the lands that the protectorate mandated.

These attacks did not have any impact on the faith of the Christians, who went to Jerusalem. This attack made their determination overflow as they still headed to Jerusalem to pray as it was identified in the 11th century. This determination made even the regular Christians travel to Jerusalem for pilgrimage. The leaders undertook the spirit and travelled with many pilgrims to Palestine. At the closure of the 11th century, many of the Christians undertook the journey from Germany to Palestine. This was driven by their urge to visit the Holy Land.

However, the Turks rose to power, and this had implication for the pilgrims, who travelled to visit the Holy Land. The Greek empire was defeated, and its leaders were taken in as hostages. The whole empire became the possession of the Turks, but a few the states in the empire were still under the rule of the Christians. By the end of that year, the Pope had written different letters, urging people to reclaim their lost glory. The Pope recommended that they should reestablish their unity and rebuild the Holy Land.

One of the states that constituted the empire started the fight, which helped in instigating the Crusade. The Pope then issued a plan that would help them win the war against their enemies. The leaders of Christianity sought help from the West to defeat the Turks. This was not without fear that they could not defeat the Turks. The Pope preached to the Christians to stand up for their property, and it was after their preaching that they gave the cross and the vow, which gave Christians the power to fight. In addition, the Pope wrote to all Christian dynasties and urged them to help in reclaiming the Holy Land. Many Christians headed to Egypt, where many Jews who resided in Germany were killed.

Three years before the end of the 11th century, the Christians managed to gain victory over the Turks. They immediately undertook a step of rebuilding the city to reclaim its lost glory. Their victory was however short-lived as famine affected them to a considerable degree, making many of them run away in search of something to eat. Their success was rejuvenated, when they were able to reclaim the Holy Land. This meant that they had captured back their possession as they won the war against the reclamation of Jerusalem.

At the beginning of the 12th century, fate caught up with the Christians as many of their leaders were killed by the Turks. The deaths of their leaders brought the Christians together and contributed towards forming a territory that became powerful. This territory was adjacent to the Egyptian empire. Then, people formed the Supreme Court, which overlooked the aspects of the law. This territory began to grow in terms of finances as it collected a lot of income from the Christian leaders. These leaders made formed military in order to overlook the security issues and take vows of fighting in any war that was against their enemies.

The territory was, however, attacked by the Muslims in the year 1146. The Christians retaliated and almost lost, but their army did a considerable job of fighting back. The Muslim leader was killed, but his children took over the war to fight back against the Christians. A different part of the army that traversed territories to fight Syria was ambushed and had to surrender, while frustrating those, who were left behind. This ambush had significant lessons for the leaders of the Christians. This implied that the Greeks were absolutely the greatest obstacle for Christians in terms of achieving their success.

In the year 1186, Pope Gregory VIII accepted to give peace a chance as they came to terms with other nations of the West. This act favored the Christians as those nations decided to help them in conquering the Muslims&rsquo cities. The Christians managed to arrest some of the Muslims, who under the orders of the leader were killed. However, the Christians managed to reclaim some of the cities captured by the Muslims. The Christian army in the 13th century decided to start their fight against Constantinople. In 1204, the Christians managed to capture Constantinople. This city was, however, divided to four imminent states.

The Christian army evolved to being an army, which was disorganized and irregular in its actions. This did not correspond well with those, who lived in Europe, and they subjected them to a considerable opposition. This opposition led to the thirteenth Crusades in the year 1249. This Crusade managed to overpower a state that belonged to Egypt. This gave them the morale to fight and capture Cairo.

The Crusades: A Complete History

A comprehensive account of a compelling and controversial topic, whose bitter legacy resonates to this day.

Crusaders embark for the Levant. From ‘Le Roman de Godefroi de Bouillon’, France, 1337. (Bibliothèque Nationale / Bridgeman Images)

During the last four decades the Crusades have become one of the most dynamic areas of historical enquiry, which points to an increasing curiosity to understand and interpret these extraordinary events. What persuaded people in the Christian West to want to recapture Jerusalem? What impact did the success of the First Crusade (1099) have on the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities of the eastern Mediterranean? What was the effect of crusading on the people and institutions of western Europe? How did people record the Crusades and, finally, what is their legacy?

Academic debate moved forwards significantly during the 1980s, as discussion concerning the definition of a crusade gathered real steam. Understanding of the scope of the Crusades widened with a new recognition that crusading extended far beyond the original 11th-century expeditions to the Holy Land, both in terms of chronology and scope. That is, they took place long after the end of the Frankish hold on the East (1291) and continued down to the 16th century. With regards to their target, crusades were also called against the Muslims of the Iberian peninsula, the pagan peoples of the Baltic region, the Mongols, political opponents of the Papacy and heretics (such as the Cathars or the Hussites). An acceptance of this framework, as well as the centrality of papal authorisation for such expeditions, is generally referred to as the 'pluralist' position.

The emergence of this interpretation energised the existing field and had the effect of drawing in a far greater number of scholars. Alongside this came a growing interest in re-evaluating the motives of crusaders, with some of the existing emphases on money being downplayed and the cliché of landless younger sons out for adventure being laid to rest. Through the use of a broader range of evidence than ever before (especially charters, that is sales or loans of lands and/or rights), a stress on contemporary religious impulses as the dominant driver for, particularly the First Crusade, came through. Yet the wider world intruded on and then, in some ways, stimulated this academic debate: the horrors of 9/11 and President George W. Bush's disastrous use of the word 'crusade' to describe the 'war on terror' fed the extremists' message of hate and the notion of a longer, wider conflict between Islam and the West, dating back to the medieval period, became extremely prominent. In reality, of course, such a simplistic view is deeply flawed but it is a powerful shorthand for extremists of all persuasions (from Osama Bin Laden to Anders Breivik to ISIS) and certainly provided an impetus to study the legacy of the crusading age into the modern world, as we will see here, calling on the extensive online archive of History Today.

The First Crusade was called in November 1095 by Pope Urban II at the town of Clermont in central France. The pope made a proposal: 'Whoever for devotion alone, but not to gain honour or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God can substitute this journey for all penance.' This appeal was the combination of a number of contemporary trends along with the inspiration of Urban himself, who added particular innovations to the mix. For several decades Christians had been pushing back at Muslim lands on the edge of Europe, in the Iberian peninsula, for example, as well as in Sicily. In some instances the Church had become involved in these events through the offer of limited spiritual rewards for participants.

Urban was responsible for the spiritual well-being of his flock and the crusade presented an opportunity for the sinful knights of western Europe to cease their endless in-fighting and exploitation of the weak (lay people and churchmen alike) and to make good their violent lives. Urban saw the campaign as a chance for knights to direct their energies towards what was seen as a spiritually meritorious act, namely the recovery of the holy city of Jerusalem from Islam (the Muslims had taken Jerusalem in 637). In return for this they would, in effect, be forgiven those sins they had confessed. This, in turn, would save them from the prospect of eternal damnation in the fires of Hell, a fate repeatedly emphasised by the Church as the consequence of a sinful life. To find out more see Marcus Bull, who reveals the religious context of the campaign in his 1997 article.

Within an age of such intense religiosity the city of Jerusalem, as the place where Christ lived, walked and died, held a central role. When the aim of liberating Jerusalem was coupled to lurid (probably exaggerated) stories of the maltreatment of both the Levant's native Christians and western pilgrims, the desire for vengeance, along with the opportunity for spiritual advancement, formed a hugely potent combination. Urban would be looking after his flock and improving the spiritual condition of western Europe, too. The fact that the papacy was engaged in a mighty struggle with the German emperor, Henry IV (the Investiture Controversy), and that calling the crusade would enhance the pope's standing was an opportunity too good for Urban to miss.

A spark to this dry tinder came from another Christian force: the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Alexios I feared the advance of the Seljuk Turks towards his capital city of Constantinople. The Byzantines were Greek Orthodox Christians but, since 1054, had been in a state of schism with the Catholic Church. The launch of the crusade presented Urban with a chance to move closer to the Orthodox and to heal the rift.

The reaction to Urban's appeal was astounding and news of the expedition rippled across much of the Latin West. Thousands saw this as a new way to attain salvation and to avoid the consequences of their sinful lives. Yet aspirations of honour, adventure, financial gain and, for a very small number, land (in the event, most of the First Crusaders returned home after the expedition ended) may well have figured, too. While churchmen frowned upon worldly motives because they believed that such sinful aims would incur God's displeasure, many laymen had little difficulty in accommodating these alongside their religiosity. Thus Stephen of Blois, one of the senior men on the campaign, could write home to his wife, Adela of Blois (daughter of William the Conqueror), that he had been given valuable gifts and honours by the emperor and that he now had twice as much gold, silver and other riches as when he left the West. People of all social ranks (except kings) joined the First Crusade, although an initial rush of ill-disciplined zealots sparked an horrific outbreak of antisemitism, especially in the Rhineland, as they sought to finance their expedition by taking Jewish money and to attack a group perceived as the enemies of Christ in their own lands. These contingents, known as the 'Peoples' Crusade', caused real problems outside Constantinople, before Alexios ushered them over the Bosporus and into Asia Minor, where the Seljuk Turks destroyed them.

Led by a series of senior nobles, the main armies gathered in Constantinople during 1096. Alexios had not expected such a huge number of westerners to appear on his doorstep but saw the chance to recover land lost to the Turks. Given the crusaders' need for food and transport, the emperor held the upper hand in this relationship, although this is not to say that he was anything other than cautious in dealing with the new arrivals, particularly in the aftermath of the trouble caused by the Peoples' Crusade and the fact that the main armies included a large Norman Sicilian contingent, a group who had invaded Byzantine lands as recently as 1081. See Peter Frankopan. Most of the crusade leaders swore oaths to Alexios, promising to hand over to him lands formerly held by the Byzantines in return for supplies, guides and luxury gifts.

In June 1097 the crusaders and the Greeks took one of the emperor's key objectives, the formidable walled city of Nicaea, 120 miles from Constantinople, although in the aftermath of the victory some writers reported Frankish discontent at the division of booty. The crusaders moved inland, heading across the Anatolian plain. A large Turkish army attacked the troops of Bohemond of Taranto near Dorylaeum. The crusaders were marching in separate contingents and this, plus the unfamiliar tactics of swift attacks by mounted horse archers, almost saw them defeated until the arrival of forces under Raymond of Toulouse and Godfrey of Bouillon saved the day. This hard-won victory proved an invaluable lesson for the Christians and, as the expedition went on, the military cohesion of the crusader army grew and grew, making them an ever more effective force.

Over the next few months the army, under Count Baldwin of Boulogne, crossed Asia Minor with some contingents taking the Cilician towns of Tarsus and Mamistra and others, heading via Cappadocia towards the eastern Christian lands of Edessa (biblical Rohais), where the largely Armenian population welcomed the crusaders. Local political conflict meant Baldwin was able to take power himself and thus, in 1098, the first so-called Crusader State, the County of Edessa, came into being.

By this time the bulk of the army had reached Antioch, today just inside the southern Turkish border with Syria. This huge city had been a Roman settlement to Christians it was significant as the place where saints Peter and Paul had lived and it was one of the five patriarchal seats of the Christian Church. It was also important to the Byzantines, having been a major city in their empire as recently as 1084. The site was too big to surround properly but the crusaders did their best to squeeze the place into submission. Over the winter of 1097 conditions became extremely harsh, although the arrival of a Genoese fleet in the spring of 1098 provided some useful support. The stalemate was only ended when Bohemond persuaded a local Christian to betray one of the towers and on June 3rd, 1098 the crusaders broke into the city and captured it. Their victory was not complete, however, because the citadel, towering over the site, remained in Muslim hands, a problem compounded by the news that a large Muslim relief army was approaching from Mosul. Lack of food and the loss of most of their horses (essential for the knights, of course) meant that morale was at rock bottom. Count Stephen of Blois, one of the most senior figures on the crusade, along with a few other men, had recently deserted, believing the expedition doomed. They met Emperor Alexios, who was bringing long-awaited reinforcements, and told him that the crusade was a hopeless cause. Thus, in good faith, the Greek ruler turned back. In Antioch, meanwhile, the crusaders had been inspired by the 'discovery' of a relic of the Holy Lance, the spear that had pierced Christ's side as he was on the cross. A vision told a cleric in Raymond of St Gilles' army where to dig and, sure enough, there the object was found. Some regarded this as a touch convenient and too easy a boost to the standing of the Provençal contingent, but to the masses it acted as a vital inspiration. A couple of weeks later, on June 28th, 1098, the crusaders gathered their last few hundred horses together, drew themselves into their now familiar battle lines and charged the Muslim forces. With writers reporting the aid of warrior saints in the sky, the crusaders triumphed and the citadel duly surrendered leaving them in full control of Antioch before the Muslim relief army arrived.

In the aftermath of victory many of the exhausted Christians succumbed to disease, including Adhémar of Le Puy, the papal legate and spiritual leader of the campaign. The senior crusaders were bitterly divided. Bohemond wanted to stay and consolidate his hold on Antioch, arguing that since Alexios had not fulfilled his side of the bargain then his oath to the Greeks was void and the conquest remained his. The bulk of the crusaders scorned this political squabbling because they wanted to reach Christ's tomb in Jerusalem and they compelled the army to head southwards. En route, they avoided major set-piece confrontations by making deals with individual towns and cities and they reached Jerusalem in June 1099. John France relates the capture of the city in his article from 1997.

Forces concentrated to the north and the south of the walled city and on July 15th, 1099 the troops of Godfrey of Bouillon managed to bring their siege towers close enough to the walls to get across. Their fellow Christians burst into the city and over the next few days the place was put to the sword in an outburst of religious cleansing and a release of tension after years on the march. A terrible massacre saw many of the Muslim and Jewish defenders of the city slaughtered, although the oft-repeated phrase of 'wading up to their knees in blood' is an exaggeration, being a line from the apocalyptic Book of Revelation (14:20) used to convey an impression of the scene rather than a real description – a physical impossibility. The crusaders gave emotional thanks for their success as they reached their goal, the tomb of Christ in the Holy Sepulchre.

Their victory was not yet assured. The vizier of Egypt had viewed the crusaders' advance with a mixture of emotions. As the guardian of the Shi'ite caliphate in Cairo he had a profound dislike of the Sunni Muslims of Syria, but equally he did not want a new power to establish itself in the region. His forces confronted the crusaders near Ascalon in August 1099 and, in spite of their numerical inferiority, the Christians triumphed and also secured a substantial amount of booty. By this time, having achieved their aims, the vast majority of the exhausted crusaders were only too keen to return to their homes and families. Some, of course, chose to remain in the Levant, resolved to guard Christ's patrimony and to set up lordships and holdings for themselves. Fulcher of Chartres, a contemporary in the Levant, lamented that only 300 knights stayed in the kingdom of Jerusalem a tiny number to establish a permanent hold on the land.

Over the next decade, however, aided by the lack of real opposition from the local Muslims and boosted by the arrival of a series of fleets from the West, the Christians began to take control of the whole coastline and to create a series of viable states. The support of the Italian trading cities of Venice, Pisa and, particularly at this early stage, Genoa, was crucial. The motives of the Italians have often been questioned but there is convincing evidence to show they were just as keen as any other contemporaries to capture Jerusalem, yet as trading centres they were determined to advance the cause of their home city, too. The writings of Caffaro of Genoa, a rare secular source from this period, show little difficulty in assimilating these motives. He went on pilgrimage to the River Jordan, attended Easter ceremonies in the Holy Sepulchre and celebrated the acquisition of riches. Italian sailors and troops helped capture the vital coastal ports (such as Acre, Caesarea and Jaffa), in return for which they were awarded generous trading privileges which, in turn, gave a vital boost to the economy as the Italians transported goods from the Muslim interior (especially spices) back to the West. Just as important was their role in bringing pilgrims to and from the Holy Land. Now that the holy places were in Christian hands, many thousands of westerners could visit the sites and, as they came under Latin control, religious communities flourished. Thus, the basic rationale behind the Crusades was fulfilled. There is a strong case for saying that the crusader states could not have been sustained were it not for the contribution of the Italians.

One interesting side-effect of the First Crusade (and a matter of immense interest to scholars today) is the unprecedented burst of historical writing that emerged after the capture of Jerusalem. This amazing episode inspired authors across the Christian West to write about these events in a way that nothing in earlier medieval history had done. No longer had they to look back to the heroes of antiquity, because their own generation had provided men of comparable renown. This was an age of rising literacy and the creation and circulation of crusade texts was a big part of this movement. Numerous histories, plus oral storytelling, often in the form of Chansons de geste, popular within the early flowerings of the chivalric age, celebrated the First Crusade. Historians have previously looked at these narratives to construct the framework of events but now many scholars are looking behind these texts to consider more deeply the reasons why they were written, the different styles of writing, the use of classical and biblical motifs, the inter-relationships and the borrowings between the texts.

Another area to receive increasing attention is the reaction of the Muslim world. It is now clear that when the First Crusade arrived the Muslims of the Near East were extremely divided, not just along the Sunni/Shi'ite fault line, but also, in the case of the former, among themselves. Robert Irwin draws attention to this in his 1997 article, as well as considering the impact of the crusade on the Muslims of the region. It was a fortunate coincidence that during the mid-1090s the death of senior leaders in the Seljuk world meant that the crusaders encountered opponents who were primarily concerned with their own political infighting rather than seeing the threat from outside. Given that the First Crusade was, self-evidently, a novel event, this was understandable. The lack of jihad spirit was also evident, as lamented by as-Sulami, a Damascene preacher whose urging of the ruling classes to pull themselves together and fulfil their religious duty was largely ignored until the time of Nur ad-Din (1146-74) and Saladin onwards.

The Frankish settlers had to fit in to the complex cultural and religious blend of the Near East. Their numbers were so few that once they had captured places they very quickly needed to adapt their behaviour from the militant holy war rhetoric of Pope Urban II to a more pragmatic stance of relative religious toleration, with truces and even occasional alliances with various Muslim neighbours. Had they oppressed the majority local population (and many Muslims and eastern Christians lived under Frankish rule), there would have been no-one to farm the lands or to tax and their economy would simply have collapsed. Recent archaeological work by the Israeli scholar Ronnie Ellenblum has done much to show that the Franks did not, as was previously believed, live solely in the cities, separated from the local populace. Local Christian communities often existed alongside them, sometimes even sharing churches.

The Frankish states of Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem established themselves in the complex religious, political and cultural landscape of the Near East. One of the early rulers of Jerusalem had married into native Armenian Christian nobility and thus Queen Melisende (1131-52) had a strong interest in supporting the indigenous as well as the Latin Church. The quirks of genetics, coupled with a high mortality rate among male rulers, meant that women exerted greater power than previously supposed given the war-torn environment of the Latin East and prevailing religious attitudes towards women as weak temptresses. It still needed a strong personality to survive and, in the case of Melisende, that was certainly so, as Simon Sebag Montefiore recounts in a 2011 article, which also gives a sense of the city of Jerusalem during the 12th century, as well as some contemporary Muslim views of the Christian settlers.

The Franks were always short on manpower but were a dynamic group who developed innovative institutions, such as the Military Orders, to survive. The Orders were founded to help look after pilgrims in the case of the Hospitallers, through healthcare in that of the Templars, to guard visitors on the road to the River Jordan. Soon both were fully-fledged religious institutions, whose members took the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It proved a popular concept and donations from admiring and grateful pilgrims meant that the Military Orders developed a major role as landowners, as the custodians of castles and as the first real standing army in Christendom. They were independent of the control of the local rulers and could, at times, cause trouble for the king or squabble with one another. The Templars and Hospitallers also held huge tracts of land across western Europe, which provided income for the fighting machine in the Levant, especially the construction of the castles that became so vital to the Christian hold on the region.

In December 1144 Zengi, the Muslim ruler of Aleppo and Mosul, captured Edessa to mark the first major territorial setback for the Franks of the Near East. The news of this disaster prompted Pope Eugenius III to issue an appeal for the Second Crusade (1145-49). Fortified by this powerful call to live up to the deeds of their first crusading forefathers, coupled with the inspiring rhetoric of (Saint) Bernard of Clairvaux, the rulers of France and Germany took the cross to mark the start of royal involvement in the Crusades. Christian rulers in Iberia joined with the Genoese in attacking the towns of Almeria in southern Spain (1147) and Tortosa in the north-east (1148) likewise the nobles of northern Germany and the rulers of Denmark launched an expedition against the pagan Wends of the Baltic shore around Stettin. While this was no grand plan of Pope Eugenius but rather a reaction to appeals sent to him, it shows the confidence in crusading at this time. In the event, this optimism proved deeply unfounded. A group of Anglo-Norman, Flemish and Rhineland crusaders captured Lisbon in 1147 and the other Iberian campaigns were also successful but the Baltic campaign achieved virtually nothing and the most prestigious expedition of all, that to the Holy Land, was a disaster, as Jonathan Phillips explains in his 2007 article. The two armies lacked discipline, supplies and finance, and both were badly mauled by the Seljuk Turks as they crossed Asia Minor. Then, in conjunction with the Latin settlers, the crusaders laid siege to the most important Muslim city in Syria, Damascus. Yet, after only four days, fear of relief forces led by Zengi's son, Nur ad-Din, prompted an ignominious retreat. The crusaders blamed the Franks of the Near East for this failure, accusing them of accepting a pay-off to retreat. Whatever the truth in this, the defeat at Damascus certainly damaged crusade enthusiasm in the West and over the next three decades, in spite of increasingly elaborate and frantic appeals for help, there was no major crusade to the Holy Land.

To regard the Franks as entirely enfeebled would, however, be a serious error. They captured Ascalon in 1153 to complete their control of the Levantine coast, an important advance for the security of trade and pilgrim traffic in terms of reducing harassment by Muslim shipping. The following year, however, Nur ad-Din took power in Damascus to mark the first time that the cities had been joined with Aleppo under the rule of the same man during the crusader period, something that greatly increased the threat to the Franks. Nur ad-Din's considerable personal piety, his encouragement of madrasas (teaching colleges) and the composition of jihad poetry and texts extolling the virtues of Jerusalem created a bond between the religious and the ruling classes that had been conspicuously lacking since the crusaders arrived in the East. During the 1160s Nur ad-Din, acting as the champion of Sunni orthodoxy, seized control of Shi'ite Egypt, dramatically raising the strategic pressure on the Franks and at the same time enhancing the financial resources at his disposal through the fertility of the Nile Delta and the vital port of Alexandria.

This period of the history of the Latin East is related in detail by the most important historian of the age, William, Archbishop of Tyre, as Peter Edbury describes. William was an immensely educated man, who soon became embroiled in the bitter political struggles of the late 1170s and 1180s during the reign of the tragic figure of King Baldwin IV (1174-85), a youth afflicted by leprosy. The need to establish his successor provided an opportunity for rival factions to emerge and to cause the Franks to expend much of their energy on bickering with each other. That is not to say that they were unable to inflict serious damage on Nur ad-Din's ambitious successor, Saladin, who from his base in Egypt, hoped to usurp his former master's dynasty, draw the Muslim Near East together and to expel the Franks from Jerusalem. Norman Housely expertly relates this period in his 1987 article. In 1177, however, the Franks triumphed at the Battle of Montgisard, a victory that was widely reported in western Europe and did little to convince people of the settlers' very real need for help. The construction in 1178 and 1179 of the large castle of Jacob's Ford, only a day's ride from Damascus, was another aggressive gesture that required Saladin to destroy the place. Yet by 1187 the sultan had gathered a large, but fragile coalition of warriors from Egypt, Syria and Iraq that was sufficient to bring the Franks into the field and to inflict upon them a terrible defeat at Hattin on July 4th. Within months, Jerusalem fell and Saladin had recovered Islam's third most important city after Mecca and Medina, an achievement that still echoes down the centuries.

News of the calamitous fall of Jerusalem sparked grief and outrage in the West. Pope Urban III was said to have died of a heart attack at the news and his successor, Gregory VIII, issued an emotive crusade appeal and the rulers of Europe began to organise their forces. Frederick Barbarossa's German army successfully defeated the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor only for the emperor to drown crossing a river in southern Turkey. Soon afterwards many of the Germans died of sickness and Saladin escaped facing this formidable enemy. The Franks in the Levant had managed to cling onto the city of Tyre and then besieged the most important port on the coast, Acre. This provided a target for western forces and it was here in the summer of 1190 that Philip Augustus and Richard the Lionheart landed. The siege had lasted almost two years and the arrival of the two western kings and their troops gave the Christians the momentum they needed. The city surrendered and Saladin's prestige was badly dented. Philip soon returned home and while Richard made two attempts to march on Jerusalem, fears as to its long-term prospects after he left meant that the holy city remained in Muslim hands. Thus the Third Crusade failed in its ultimate objective, although it did at least allow the Franks to recover a strip of lands along the coast to provide a springboard for future expeditions. For his part, Saladin had suffered a series of military setbacks but, crucially, he had held onto Jerusalem for Islam.

Portrait of Saladin.

The pontificate of Innocent III (1198-1216) saw another phase in the expansion of crusading. Campaigns in the Baltic advanced further and the holy war in Iberia stepped forwards too. In 1195 Muslims had crushed Christian forces at the Battle of Alarcos, which, so soon after the disaster at Hattin, seemed to show God's deep displeasure with his people. By 1212, however, the rulers of Iberia managed to pull together to rout the Muslims at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa to seal a major step in the recovery of the peninsula. That said, the particular cultural, political and religious make-up of the region mean that it would be wrong, as in the Holy Land, to characterise relations between religious groups as constant warfare, a situation outlined by Robert Burns and Paul Chevedden. In southern France, meanwhile, efforts to curb the Cathar heresy had failed and, in a bid to defeat this sinister threat to the Church in its own backyard, Innocent authorised a crusade to the area. See the piece by Richard Cavendish. Catharism was a dualist faith, albeit with a few links to mainstream Christian practice, but it also had its own hierarchy and was intent upon replacing the existing elite. Years of warfare ensued as the crusaders, led by Simon de Monfort, sought to drive the Cathars out, but ultimately their roots in southern French society meant they could endure and it was only the more pervasive techniques of the Inquisition, initiated in the 1240s, that succeeded where force had failed.

The most infamous episode of the age was the Fourth Crusade (1202-04) which saw another effort to recover Jerusalem end up sacking Constantinople, the greatest Christian city in the world. Jonathan Phillips describes this episode. The reasons for this were a combination of long-standing tensions between the Latin (Catholic) Church and the Greek Orthodox the need for the crusaders to fulfil the terms of a wildly over-optimistic contract for transportation to the Levant with the Venetians and the offer to pay this off by a claimant to the Byzantine throne. This combination of circumstances brought the crusaders to the walls of Constantinople and when their young candidate was murdered and the locals turned definitively against them they attacked and stormed the city. At first Innocent was delighted that Constantinople was under Latin authority but as he learned of the violence and looting that had accompanied the conquest he was horrified and castigated the crusaders for 'the perversion of their pilgrimage'.

One consequence of 1204 was the creation of a series of Frankish States in Greece that, over time, also needed support. Thus, in the course of the 13th century, crusades were preached against these Christians, although by 1261 Constantinople itself was back in Greek hands.

In spite of this series of disasters, it is interesting to see that crusading remained an attractive concept, something made manifest by the near-legendary Children's Crusade of 1212. Inspired by divine visions, two groups of young peasants (best described as youths, rather than children) gathered around Cologne and near Chartres in the belief that their purity would ensure divine approval and enable them to recover the Holy Land. The German group crossed the Alps and some reached the port of Genoa, where the harsh realities of having no money or real hope of achieving anything was made plain when they were refused passage to the East and the entire enterprise collapsed.

Thus, the early 13th century was characterised by the diversity of crusading. Holy war was proving a flexible and adaptable concept that allowed the Church to direct force against its enemies on many fronts. The rationale of crusading, as a defensive act to protect Christians, could be refined to apply specifically to the Catholic Church and thus when the papacy came into conflict with Emperor Frederick II over the control of southern Italy it eventually called a crusade against him. Frederick had already been excommunicated for failing to fulfil his promises to take part in the Fifth Crusade. This expedition had achieved the original intention of the Fourth Crusade by invading Egypt but became bogged down outside the port of Damietta before a poorly executed attempt to march on Cairo collapsed. Frederick's attempts to make good this were frustrated by genuine ill health but by this time the papacy had lost patience with him. Recovered, Frederick went to the Holy Land as, by this time, king of Jerusalem (by marriage to the heiress to the throne) where – irony of ironies – as an excommunicate, he negotiated the peaceful restoration of Jerusalem to the Christians. His diplomatic skills (he spoke Arabic), the danger posed by his considerable resources as well as the divisions in the Muslim world in the decades after Saladin's death, enabled him to accomplish this. A brief period of better relations between pope and emperor followed, but by 1245 the curia described him as a heretic and authorised the preaching of a crusade against him.

Aside from the plethora of crusading expeditions that took place over the centuries, we should also remember that the launch of such campaigns had a profound impact on the lands and people from whence they came, something covered by Christopher Tyerman. Crusading required substantial levels of financial support and this, over time, saw the emergence of national taxes to support such efforts, as well as efforts to raise money from within the Church itself. The absence of a large number of senior nobles and churchmen could affect the political balance of an area, with opportunities for women to act as regents or for unscrupulous neighbours to defy ecclesiastical legislation and to try to take the lands of absent crusaders. The death or disappearance of a crusader, be they a minor figure or an emperor, obviously carried deep personal tragedy for those they had left behind, but might also precipitate instability and change.

The previous year, Jerusalem had fallen back into Muslim hands and this was the principal prompt for what turned out to be the greatest crusade expedition of the century (known as the Seventh Crusade) led by King (later Saint) Louis IX of France. Simon Lloyd outlines Louis's crusading career. Well financed and carefully prepared and with an early victory at Damietta, this campaign appeared to be set fair only for a reckless charge by Louis's brother at the Battle of Mansourah to weaken the crusaders' forces. This, coupled with hardening Muslim resistance, brought the expedition to a halt and, starving and sick, they were forced to surrender. Louis remained in the Holy Land for a further four years – a sign of his guilt at the failure of the campaign, but also a remarkable commitment for a European monarch to be absent from his home for a total of six years – trying to bolster the defences of the Latin kingdom. By this time, with the Latins largely confined to the coastal strip the settlers relied more and more on massive fortifications and it was during the 13th century that mighty castles such as Krak des Chevaliers, Saphet and Chastel Pelerin, as well as the immense urban fortifications of Acre, took shape.

By this stage the political complexion of the Middle East was changing. The Mongol invaders added another dimension to the struggle as they conquered much of the Muslim world to the East they had also briefly threatened Eastern Europe with savage incursions in 1240-41 (which also prompted a crusade appeal). Saladin's successors were displaced by the Mamluks, the former slave-soldiers, whose figurehead, the sultan Baibars, was a ferocious exponent of holy war and did much to bring the crusader states to their knees over the next two decades. James Waterson describes their advance. Bouts of in-fighting among the Frankish nobility, further complicated by the involvement of the Italian trading cities and the Military Orders served to further weaken the Latin States and finally, in 1291, the Sultan al-Ashraf smashed into the city of Acre to end the Christian hold on the Holy Land.

Some historians used to regard this as the end of the crusades but, as noted above, since the 1980s there has been a broad recognition that this was not the case, not least because of the series of plans made to try to recover the Holy Land during the 14th century. Elsewhere crusading was still a powerful idea, not least in northern Europe, where the Teutonic Knights (originally founded in the Holy Land) had transferred their interests and where they had created what was effectively an autonomous state. By the early 15th century, however, their enemies in the region were starting to Christianise anyway and thus it became impossible to justify continued conflict in terms of holy war. The success of Las Navas de Tolosa had effectively pinned the Muslims down to the very south of the Iberian peninsula, but it took until 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella brought the full strength of the Spanish crown to bear upon Granada that the reconquest was completed. Plans to recover the Holy Land had not entirely died out and in a spirit of religious devotion, Christopher Columbus set out the same year hoping to find a route to the Indies that would enable him to reach Jerusalem from the East.

The 14th century began with high drama: the arrest and imprisonment of the Knights Templar on charges of heresy, a story related by Helen Nicholson. A combination of lax religious observance and their failure to protect the Holy Land had made them vulnerable. This uncomfortable situation, coupled with the French crown owing them huge sums of money (the Templars had emerged as a powerful banking institution) meant that the manipulative and relentless Philip IV of France could pressure Pope Clement V into suppressing the Order in 1312 and one of the great institutions of the medieval age was terminated.

Crusading within Europe itself had continued to mutate, too. The papacy had issued crusading indulgences on many occasions during its own struggles against both political enemies and against heretical groups such as the Hussites of Bohemia. The main threat to Christendom by this time, however, was from the Ottoman Turks, who, as Judith Herrin relates, captured Constantinople in 1453. Numerous efforts were made to draw together the leaders of the Latin West, but the growing power of nation states and their increasingly engrained conflicts, exemplified by the Hundred Years' War, meant that there was little appetite for the kind of Europe-wide response that had been seen in 1187, for example. Nigel Saul outlines this period of crusading history in his article.

Certain dynasties such as the dukes of Burgundy, were enthusiastic about the idea of crusading and a couple of reasonably-sized expeditions took place, although the Burgundians and the Hungarians were thrashed at Nicopolis in Bulgaria in 1396. By the middle of the 15th century the Ottomans had already twice besieged Constantinople and in 1453 Sultan Mehmet II brought forwards an immense army to achieve his aim. Last-minute appeals to the West brought insufficient help and the city fell in May. The Emperor Charles V invoked the crusading spirit in his defence of Vienna in 1529, although this struggle resembled more of an imperial fight rather than a holy war. Crusading had almost run its course people had become increasingly cynical about the Church's sale of indulgences. The advance of the Reformation was another obvious blow to the idea, with crusading being viewed as a manipulative and money-making device of the Catholic Church. By the late 16th century the last real vestiges of the movement could be seen the Spanish Armada of 1588 benefitted from crusade indulgences, while the Knights Hospitaller, who had first ruled Rhodes from 1306 to 1522 before making their base on Malta, inspired a remarkable victory over an Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Jonathan Riley-Smith relates the knights' story. The Hospitallers of Malta had also survived a huge Turkish siege in 1480 and their existence served as a long-lasting relic of the original crusading conflict until Napoleon Bonaparte extinguished their rule of the island in 1798.

Crusading survived in the memory and the imagination of the peoples of western Europe and the Middle East. In the former, it regained profile through the romantic literature of writers such as Sir Walter Scott and, as lands in the Middle East fell to the imperialist empires of the age, the French, in particular, chose to draw links with their crusading past. The word became a shorthand for a cause with moral right, be it in a non-military context, such as a crusade against drink, or in the horrors of the First World War. General Franco's ties with the Catholic Church in Spain invoked crusading ideology in perhaps the closest modern incarnation of the idea and it remains a word in common usage today.

In the Muslim world, the memory of the Crusades faded, although did not disappear, from view and Saladin continued to be a figure held out as an exemplar of a great ruler. In the context of the 19th century, the Europeans' invocation of the past built upon this existing memory and meant that the image of hostile, aggressive westerners seeking to conquer Muslim or Arab lands became extremely potent for Islamists and Arab Nationalist leaders alike, and Saladin, as the man who recaptured Jerusalem, stands as the man to aspire to. Articles by Jonathan Phillips and Umej Bhatia cover the memory and the legacy of the crusades to bring the story down to modern times.

Jonathan Phillips is Professor of Crusading History at Royal Holloway University of London and the author of Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades (Vintage, 2010).

Watch the video: Impact of the Crusades (May 2022).


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