In most cases, it’s a good thing when people come together to work towards a common cause. Peace, unity, support. All those are positive things, right?
Well, what if that common cause is violence? And what if that violence is motivated by fear and hatred of people just because of their religion and culture?
Then, maybe, unity isn’t always a good thing?
Fortunately, when studying history, we don’t really have to answer these questions. It’s not our job to judge and evaluate, but rather to understand.
In the case of Medieval European history, there wasn’t a whole lot of unity and togetherness. But when there was, it was almost always about religion, specifically Christianity, and even more specifically, Catholicism.
So, when Catholic leaders of Europe decided to march halfway across the world to the Middle East and “take back” the Holy Land, also known as Jerusalem, from the Muslims living there, people volunteered by the thousands.
These religious wars are known today as “The Crusades,” and they took place from 1096 to 1291 AD.
Although the Christians were ultimately defeated in their effort to conquer Jerusalem, these wars reshaped the dynamics between Europe and the Middle East while also greatly expanding the power of the Pope.
Understanding the Crusades Part 1: The Violence of Medieval Europe
In Western Europe in the two centuries before the start of the Crusades (the 10th and 11th), powerful central authority was tough to come by, particularly in the region we now call France.
It was a sort of “Wild West” of the Medieval world where the rule of law was nowhere to be found.
The Holy Roman Empire, which first rose in 800 AD but became a lasting political entity in the 10the century, established some sort of stability. But the nobility across Europe was constantly fighting amongst themselves, each person looking to expand their own personal power.
The result? Pure chaos.
War came to every doorstep, and the regional economy struggled, something that tends to happen when there’s no peace.
The Church Steps In: Pax Dei
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church was constantly looking to expand its political power. Given the chaos of the Medieval political landscape, this wasn’t as hard as it might seem. Especially once the Church started positioning itself as a peacemaker in a violent world.
The first thing the Church did was revive the title of “Roman Emperor.” It gave this to the king of Germany, who was also the king of Italy, which brought the Church to the forefront of European politics.
This gave birth to the Holy Roman Empire. But it wasn’t enough to stop all the fighting.
So, the Church went one step further by launching a movement known as the “Peace of God” or Pax Dei in Latin.
The idea behind this movement was to protect common people and Church property from the never-ending violence between the many lords and nobles seeking power in western Europe. Safe spaces were created where violence could not take place, giving commoners the chance to escape the mayhem.
In the end, this didn’t really work. Those doing the fighting, the nobles and lords, were doing so for power. Letting the Church stop them didn’t help their argument that they should be the ones in charge.
The Church responded, in part, by organizing the Crusades. By calling on the people of Europe to travel and fight in the name of God, they provided those looking for glory with a new outlet, and they also brought the violence of Western Europe somewhere else.
Understanding the Crusades Part 2: Fighting Back the Muslims
One of the other factors that pushed so many people in Europe to leave their homes and wage religious war in the faraway Middle East was the threat of invasion.
For nearly the entirety of humanity’s existence, we have sectioned people off into two main groups: “us” and “them.” Those that fall into the “us” category are cool. Those who are in the “them” category, not so much.
In Medieval Europe, there were tons of different “us”-es. But a big one was Christian, more specifically, Catholic.
In general, Catholics recognized the Pope in Rome as their supreme leader, even higher than their local lord or king.
So, when Arab Muslims crossed the Mediterranean and started advancing through the Iberian Peninsula, toppling the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain and threatening to invade Frankish lands in what is now France, people got scared. The collective “us”, the Christians of Europe, were nervous that the big “them,” the Muslims, were going to invade.
This also started happening in the East, in the lands occupied by the Byzantine Empire (the remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire).
The Muslim-led Seljuk Turks made considerable headway into Byzantine territory, forcing the Byzantine emperor himself to appeal for help from the West.
They did this formally at a meeting now called the Council of Piacenza. The request was then communicated at the Council of Clermont, and from there the idea of the Crusades took off like wildfire around Europe.
War was on.
The First Crusade and the Kingdom of Jerusalem
When we talk about the Crusades, we’re referring to a number of specific military missions. The most well-known is the First Crusade. It took place from 1096 to 1099 AD.
The primary target: Jerusalem, aka the “Holy Land.”
Believed by Christians to be central to the story of Jesus’ death and crucifixion, it was the destination for countless Christian pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Many Christians had longed for a time when it would once again be under Christian control.
But since the rise of Muhammed, Islam, and the Arab caliphates, Jerusalem had been a majority Muslim territory. This wasn’t a major deal for a while, but when a new power emerged, the Seljuk Empire, in what is now modern-day Iran, things changed.
The Seljuks’ rapid expansion threatened Byzantine power, and this stoked the fires of war in the west.
Technically, the Christian Holy Land was controlled not by the Seljuk Turks but by the Fatimid dynasty, a Muslim kingdom that controlled the Mediterranean Coast in North Africa, Israel and the Levant, aka modern-day Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, etc.
But the Seljuk lands they sought to conquer were so close to the Holy Land, they figured, “why not try and get the Holy Land too. It’s right there…”
The march to Jerusalem started in 1096 AD and the Christian armies successfully reclaimed much of the lands conquered by the Seljuks. By 1099 AD, they reached the city itself and launched a siege. This lasted about a month and resulted in a Christian victory.
From there, four different states were set up to help Christians protect the lands they had just conquered in the name of God: the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Tripoli.
The initial aim of the Crusades had been met. The Holy Land had been “reclaimed” by Christians.
And so the story ends…
Not so fast!
The Second Crusade and the Reconquista
Naturally, the people living in these newly conquered areas weren’t all too thrilled about the arrival of these strange people who believed in a different religion. Especially since those people brought swords and all sorts of other weapons and came with the purpose of conquest.
Just 50 years after the fall of Jerusalem and the establishment of the Christian kingdoms in the Holy Land, in 1144 AD to be exact, a man named Zengi, a powerful Turk ruling over the Levant, and his armies captured the County of Edessa.
In response, Christian leaders mustered up another army and tried to take back what they had just taken back. But in the end, they failed.
Edessa remained in the hands of Zengi, and while Jerusalem was still held by Christians, it was isolated and so its fate was all but sealed.
In the meantime, another religious war was being waged in Spain that we now consider part of the Crusades, and this was going much better for the Christians.
Muslims first appeared in what we now call Spain in 711 AD. They quickly toppled the Christian Visigothic kingdom and didn’t stop until the Carolingians in modern-France beat them at the Battle of Tours.
Quite unhappy about their defeat, the people of Spain started fighting back. It was slow going at first, but after 700 years of near-constant warfare, they eventually managed to push their Muslim conquerors out of the Iberian Peninsula.
The Third Crusade
In 1187 AD, the worst-case scenario for the Christians occurred: Jerusalem fell. A man named Saladin, the leader of the Sultanate of Egypt, invaded and took the city.
Three powerful European monarchs, Richard I of England, Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire, and Philipp II of France, decided this could not stand. They summoned their armies and made for the Holy Land.
Once again, they failed.
There’s just something about trying to bring an army thousands of miles away into occupied territory that just makes conquest so hard.
Despite this failure, the Third Crusade was not the last. Throughout the first half of the 13th century, several more attempts were made to conquer the Holy Land. But none of them succeeded.
In fact, the most influential Crusade, in terms of changing the course of history, was the Fourth Crusade. But the reason this one stands out is because the Crusaders actually diverted their path from the Holy Land and got involved with Byzantine politics. They joined the side of the deposed emperor Alexios Angelos, and in doing so they basically took down the entire Byzantine empire.
Talk about unintended consequences.
The Significance and Legacy of the Crusades
War has very much shaped the course of human history, and things are no different when it comes to the Crusades.
The fact the Crusades even happened tells us one very important thing about Medieval Europe: the Church had a ton of power.
Although individual kings were the ones leading the armies, the Church gave them their blessing. And, through indulgences, they even offered people the chance to expedite their journey to heaven, which was a super big deal back in the Middle Ages. Indulgences were donations to the Church that effectively bought you a place in heaven.
But the Crusades tell us more about Medieval history than just that the church was a big deal. They also speak to the relative misery of the people, their tendency to be violent, and their lack of choices in life.
Poor People With Poor Choices
You see, most people in the Middle Ages, not the kings, queens, princes, dukes, and counts you read about so often, were quite poor. They were bound by law to a particular piece of land and didn’t really have many options for how to live their lives. Violence had become a part of daily life thanks to the frequent wars fought between the many different competing powers, and their ability to force average citizens to fight in them.
So, when the Church and/or the local lord or king said, “Hey you! Come travel thousands of miles to a foreign land and risk your life in the name of God and your king,” saying no wasn’t really an option.
Sure, some people wanted to go, seeing the Crusades as an opportunity to improve their lot in life. But most people probably didn’t care.
Instead, the harsh inequality of Medieval society, plus their position in it, left them with little other choice. So, the Crusades marched forward.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao