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What was the significance of the Crusades?

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Few events of the Middle Ages, indeed, of any age, are as infamous as the Crusades. The Crusades were a series of armed expeditions by European Christians to conquer Muslim-controlled territory in the Holy Land. Historians have traditionally bracketed these campaigns between the years 1095, when Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade, and 1291, when the Mamelukes, a caste of Muslim slave soldiers, conquered the city of Acre (Israel), bringing to an end any significant European Christian presence in the Holy Land. 

The years of the campaigns have been broken down into two significant eras. The first occurred between the years 1095 and 1291. The first Crusade took place under the auspices of Pope Urban II and ended when the Mamelukes, Muslim slave-soliders, conquered what is now Israel (then “Acre”).  The exact number of crusades is not clear, but historians estimate that there were either seven or eight efforts. Not even the exact date of the cessation of the Crusades can be agreed upon; although the major battles ended in 1291, there were still minor skirmishes to recover lost territory well into the late thirteenth century

Not only are the number of campaigns in contention, so too is the exact definition of what constituted a crusade. Europeans waged crusades against Muslims in Spain.  Pagans were attacked in Northern Europe. Heretics in southern France were set upon; so too were Orthodox Christians in the Byzantine Empires. 

What brought about these bloody, widespread, and prolonged conflicts were the emergence of two radically different cultures in the same time periods.  Muslims of the Middle Ages, in the Middle East, were all about conquest. They felt that God had justified their aggression because they believed themselves to be successors to the covenant God had established with the Jews and then with the Christians. Confusing matters for historians and those interested in history is the fact that at many times during this era, Muslims and Christians lived peacefully next to one another; yet at other times, they fought bitterly and to the death.

The Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, had confusing and mixed messages about Christians. On one hand, the Qur'an taught that Jesus’s followers were to be respected, as, like the Jews, they were “people of the Book.”  But on other accounts, there seemed to be sanctioned hostility towards Christians because of some of their beliefs, specifically that Christ was not simply a prophet. As for European Christians, they did not understand that Muslims considered themselves to be part of the same covenant they enjoyed with their God. Most European Christians thought Muslims were pagans, when in fact, like Christians, Muslims were monotheistic and considered themselves to be intimately connected between Judaism and Christianity.

The degree to which these misunderstood believes led to the bloody Crusades is difficult to determine. The chief catalyst, however, seems to be the parallel developments occurring in both the Muslim and Christian worlds. Perhaps the most spurring development was the rise of the Seljuk Turks, who had been attacking the Christian state of the Byzantine Empire. A significant battle occurred in 1071.  Sultan Alp Arslan’s Muslim forces defeated the armies of the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV at the Battle of Mazikert (modern-day Turkey).  Arlan’s win gave Asia Minor to Turkish rule, away from the Byzantines. Not long after, Arslan also seized Jerusalem from the Islamic dynasty of the Fatimads, whose center of power was in Egypt.  This control allowed the Muslims to restrict Christians from entering Jerusalem. Not only were they banned, many were attacked and murdered.

Things continued to go badly for the Byzantines, whose losses continued over the next twenty years. By 1095, the Seljuks were poised to capture Constantinople, the capitol city of the Byzantine empire. In desperation, and in the nick of time, Emperor Alexius 1 Comnenus appealed to the Western church for assistance.

As for Western Europe, the dawn of the Crusades was a boom time in many ways. The economy surged, cultural creativity reached new heights, and, surprisingly, politically, matters were stable. There was also a renewal of religious devotion. People felt confident; perhaps this confidence spurred them to travel long distances in order to spread their faith; likely others joined for the sheer sense of adventure. Those willing to join were given the support of Pope Urban II and by France’s nobles, who apparently believed they were obliged to assist their fellow Christians in the East.

The opportunities of the Crusades cannot be overlooked.  The Council of Clermont was called by Pope Urban in 1096, who made a moving speech that evoked the pride of the Franks. Additionally, his powerful oratory flared tempers as he cast Muslims as the enemies of Christ, concentrating intently on the persecution of Christian pilgrims in the Hold Land. Motivating many as well was Urban’s promise to protect the property of those who took up the gauntlet as well as granting those same crusaders indulgences. Reportedly, cris of “Deus vult!” (“God wills it!”) resounded throughout the speech.  The next year saw the launch of the First Crusade.  That year, 1099, was horrifically bloody; many combatants as well as women and children perished. 

Jerusalem was taken by the Crusaders but it was a terrible battle. One Christian participant recalled, "the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles."

The fact that the First Crusade was a success was a surprise to many, not the least of which were the Crusaders themselves; from the point-of-view of those in the West, it was the most successful of all the campaigns. Succeeding Crusades were called to help, for the most part, those already in the Hold Land. 

The Second Crusade was launched in 1144 by Pope Eugenius III and promoted by one of the most influential people of the twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux.  Despite the backing of these well-known figures, by all accounts, the Second Crusade was a terrible failure.

Like the Second Crusade, the Third Crusade was also defensive rather than offensive.  Saladin, the Muslim warrior, had recaptured Jerusalem in 1186.  Despite the backing of the English Kings Richard I and Henry II, no real gains occurred during this crusade; it came to an end in 1192 when King Richard signed the Treaty of Jaffa with Saladin.

The Fourth Crusade came a decade later in 1202, and was called by Pope Innocent III for Christians to go to Egypt. Arriving in Venice, the Crusaders found they did not have enough money for their passage. Instead of payment, the Venetians tuned the crusaders to the city of Zara, which they (the Venetians) wanted to recapture.  Zara fell in 1202 but was retaken by Alexius IV.  Zara wanted the Crusader to restore his father, who had been recently deposed (and blinded) by the Emperor Isaac II, to the throne.  As “encouragement,” Alexius offered the crusaders 200,000 marks, an enormous army, and the promise to reunify the Orthodox and Roman churches.

The deal was deemed a good one by the overwhelming majority of the crusaders, who, in 1203, headed towards Constantinople. They attacked in July of that year and were successful, seeing to the re-coronation of both father and son.  It was just a few months later, however, that a coup, led by the future Alexius V, ensued. Isaac and his father were murdered in January of 1204. The response of the crusaders was to take the city by force.  They were successful and Count Baldwin of Flanders became the first crowned Latin Emperor of Constantinople.  This empire would last until 1261, when Emperor Michael VIII reclaimed the throne.

The Fifth Crusade was called by Pope Innocent in 1213. The crusaders left Europe under the leadership of Duke Leopold of Austria in 1217.  Two years later, the Crusaders captured the city of Damietta. Despite the success, this crusade became marred by internal conflict. Egyptians took advantage of this internal squabbling and fortified their own lines. The crusaders retreated in 1221.  The crusades were not taken up again until 1228, this time by Roman Emperor Frederick II.  Frederick, however, chose to peacefully negotiate treaty which restored Palestine, including Jerusalem, to the Christians.

After the Fourth Crusade's failure to reach Egypt, Pope Innocent called another in 1213. The Fifth Crusade left Europe under the direction of Duke Leopold of Austria in 1217, and within two years the crusaders had captured the city of Damietta. However, the crusaders soon became bogged down by internal conflicts, and the Egyptians took advantage of the delay to fortify their positions. With their supply lines cut and facing considerable flooding due to deliberately broken dykes, this first wave of crusaders retreated from Egypt in 1221. There was a hiatus in the crusade until 1228, when Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II took up the cross. The emperor spent the next year peacefully negotiating a treaty that restored a section of Palestine (which included Jerusalem) to Christian control.

Only two more crusades followed the Sixth and the Seventh. Both were led by France’s Louis IX.  His army was dealt a terrible defeat in 1250 in Mansurah (Egypt), leading, ultimately to the Christian’s retreat. The king himself was captured, but ransomed twelve months later.  Louis remained in the Holy Land until 1254 to negotiate a treaty.  Twenty years later, there was not any significant

The two final crusades, the Six and Seventh, were led by King Louis IX of France. The army departed in August 1248, and by the following June the crusaders retook the city of Damietta and within a few months began marching toward Cairo. In 1250, Louis's army suffered a disastrous defeat at Mansurah (Egypt), which ultimately forced the crusaders to retreat. By April 6, Louis's forces were surrounded and the king was captured; he was ransomed one month later. Louis remained in the Holy Land until 1254 to negotiate various truces and fortify the cities of Acre, Jaffa, Caesarea, and Sidon. He returned to France in April, where he remained until 1270 when, energized by a report that Emir Muhammad I wanted to convert to Christianity, he departed for Tunis. However, immediately upon arrival in Tunis, Louis became gravely ill and died on August 25. Although the leadership of the crusade passed to the king's brother, Charles of Anjou, Louis's death brought an effective end to the crusade. In some ways the end of this crusade sounded the death knell of the movement. Within twenty years there would no longer be any significant Western European presence in the Holy Land. 

SourceGenocide and Crimes Against Humanity, ©2005 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved

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The Crusades were historically significant for several reasons. First, they mark the first direct conflicts between Western European powers and the Islamic kingdoms of the Middle East. The memories and cultural heritage of the Crusades still affect Middle Eastern politics and the relationship between Christianity and Islam. Second, although the Crusades initially were meant to help the Byzantine Empire, they were ineffective at that and may have contributed to its destruction. The Crusades also served to strengthen the Papacy, and give it military power. Finally, the Crusades and fall of Byzantium brought about a revival of Greek learning in the Latin West.

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