The Crusades (Part 1 of 6)
1. Deus Vult: Pope Urban II Calls for the First Crusaders (AD 1095)
2. The First Crusade and Reclaiming the Holy City (AD 1096-1099)
3. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Second Crusade (AD 1144-1153)
4. Lionheart and the Third Crusade (AD 1187-1193)
5. The Fourth Crusade & Children’s Crusades: Perhaps Christendom’s Lowest Point (AD 1198-1212)
6. Final Crusades and Final Results (AD 1215-1291)
To the postmodern thinker, the Crusades of medieval Christendom (AD 1095-1291) represent perhaps the darkest stain on the Church’s historical record. Those within Church ranks, like me, are not quite sure how to respond on the topic. Sometimes we offer explanation and even justification. Other times we simply apologize for the actions of our ancestors whom we must at least acknowledge were from the same religious tradition.
For centuries, however, many Christians viewed the crusaders as heroes of the faith whose propensity for brutal behavior was overshadowed by a praiseworthy and passionate zeal for the kingdom of Christ. After all, the Crusades produced great forces of Christian might and charity such as the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitalers. The Franks and the Spanish were able to hold off the Muslim conquest of Europe which solidified Christianity as the dominant faith on the continent. Guibert of Nogent (1055-1124), who produced one of the earliest accounts of the First Crusade, titled his work: “The Deeds of God, accomplished through the Franks.”
Those who view the Crusades as an heroic undertaking often long for a resurgence of such fierceness in reclaiming ground once owned by Christians in our day. This ground is often more ideological than geographical, and the tactics used by modern Christian militants usually favor spitefulness over the sword. The telos is the same, however; to make a glorious return to an age when the Church enjoyed majority rule.
In reality, the Crusades turned out to be far less glorious than imagined, indeed even for the crusaders themselves. As the crusaders fought to take back or preserve the Holy Lands, they victimized tens of thousands who had no part in the Christian/Muslim conflict. These included Jews, animists, and even their own Christian brothers and sisters. The crusaders themselves suffered countless losses of life in battle, not including those lost to starvation, exhaustion, and disease. As we will see, each “victory” of the Crusades was short-lived and hapless for most of those involved. These two centuries were definitely not the finest hour for those who claim to follow Christ.
When all is said and done, my conclusion will be that the Crusades were a “historical anomaly”. The Crusades were a low point in Christian history and are not representative of the Christian movement as a whole as it has been directed by the Holy Spirit for the last two millennia. As Schaff said,
The Crusaders sought the living among the dead. They mistook the visible for the invisible, confused the terrestrial and the celestial Jerusalem, and returned disillusioned after ages have learned through them, that Christ is not there, that He is risen, and ascended into heaven, where He sits at the head of a spiritual kingdom.
WHAT WERE THE CRUSADES?
The word “crusade” comes from two Latin words: crux (crusis) which means “cross,” and sagatus (sagum) which means “cloth”. The crusaders wore the sign of the cross as a symbol sewn into the the fabric of their cloaks as commissioned by the Pope himself. In AD 1096, the first “cross-saders” left Western Europe for Jerusalem, hailed as ambassadors of the cross. They did indeed conquer Jerusalem in 1099, but then lost it again in 1187. Jerusalem was reconquered by later crusaders in 1229, but it was lost again 15 years later in 1244.
The Papacy and the crusaders believed the cross would bring both victory and Christianization. The cross would defeat the Muslims and the cross would once again be the symbol of truth in the Holy Lands. While most of the crusaders were Franks, the Spanish also fought against Islamic forces in their own lands, with their own brand of holy war.
Looking back, we can discern several reasons for the emergence of the Crusades:
- The rapid spread of Islam and the increase of power of the Turks, Saracens, Arabs, and Persians. Islam had multiplied throughout the Middle East and around the Mediterranean and was becoming a major threat to the European way of life.
- On the heels of the Holy Roman Empire, there was a desire among many leaders in the Christian West for Christianity to assert its dominance once again.
- If the Kingdom of Christ was to truly rule and order the known world, a new “holy war” against heretics and heathen would be necessary.
- Christians were taking more frequent pilgrimages to the Holy Lands and Islam was dominating that region. There were also fears that such pilgrimages would soon be forbidden by the Muslims.
- The growing romantic idea of wanderlust, which is a German word meaning a strong desire to see and explore distant places.
- Ralph Winter has also pointed out, “The Crusades were in part the influence of the Viking spirit in the Christian Church. It is not surprising that all of the major Crusades were led by Viking descendants.” In other words, Christianity had muscled-up significantly as a result of the Scandinavian influx of the centuries prior. For more on “Viking Christians,” see this article from BBC.
According to Schaff, “The aim of the Crusades was the conquest of the Holy Land and the defeat of Islam. Enthusiasm for Christ was the moving impulse, with which, however, were joined the lower motives of ambition, avarice, love of adventure, hope of earthly and heavenly reward.”
For two centuries, men, women and children bearing the sign of the cross traversed nearly all of Europe and the Middle East conquering cities, imposing the Christian faith on people, haphazardly massacring their “enemies,” and being slaughtered themselves by the thousands. By the time the Crusades ended with the victory of Muslim forces against Christians at Acre in 1291, not much of value had been accomplished.
In the second century of the crusades, several Christian leaders such as St. Francis of Assisi, Raymond Lull, and Roger Bacon spoke out actively against the Crusades and reminded the Church that the crusading mentality was hardly an effective way to share the “good news” of Christ. Unfortunately, these voices of reason were not heard until much irreparable damage had already been done.
The Papacy gained a significant amount of strength but it came at great cost. The fractured relationship between the Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) churches worsened. Muslims and Christians developed a seemingly eternal hatred for one another. By the time the Crusades ended, any type of holy war could be put on the table, even brother fighting against brother. The Franks followed the Crusades by fighting each other for control of the Church. The Spanish followed the Crusades with the Inquistion.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN: THE COUNCIL OF CLERMONT
In November of AD 1095, Pope Urban II called the Council of Clermont in a field near the city by the same name in central France. The Pope presented church leaders with a plea for help that had come from Emperor Alexius I Comnenus of Byzantium (formerly Constantinople). Alexius’ description of the Muslim situation in the East was particularly troubling:
- Christian brothers and sisters in the East were suffering greatly at the hands of the Islamic forces. They were convinced the Muslims would soon begin to threaten European Christians.
- The Holy Lands, and the Holy City of Jerusalem in particular, were now under Muslim control. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which had been a religious rite since the days of Constantine and Helena, would soon be impossible.
- Not only would pilgrimages be halted, but soon Muslim forces would hold all of the holy sites in Palestine and replace the sacred relics with profane ones.
So Urban II gave the call to action. It was time to use the military strength of Western Christians, reminiscent of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious (which Urban mentions below), to wage holy war against the heretics and heathen of the East. This was the deus vult, “the will of God,” and God had a special forgiveness and offer of salvation for those who answered His call to crusade.
Soon the first crusaders would set off – a group of unorganized yet enthusiastic knights, soldiers, and civilians whose leadership was less than satisfactory. Many people joined these ventures without ever having a clear understanding of the cause and purpose According to William of Tyre (AD 1130-1186), “Many took the cross to elude their creditors.”
Below you will find a short selection from Robert the Monk’s account of Pope Urban II’s speech at Clermont. Robert recorded this just a few years after the speech was given. Read this speech closely, and consider how strong this motivation must have been to the “viking Christians” of medieval persuasion.
From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears, namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness . . .
Let the deeds of your ancestors move you and incite your minds to manly achievements; the glory and greatness of king Charles the Great, and of his son Louis, and of your other kings, who have destroyed the kingdoms of the pagans, and have extended in these lands the territory of the holy church. Let the holy sepulchre of the Lord our Saviour, which is possessed by unclean nations, especially incite you, and the holy places which are now treated with ignominy and irreverently polluted with their filthiness. Oh, most valiant soldiers and descendants of invincible ancestors, be not degenerate, but recall the valor of your progenitors.
But if you are hindered by love of children, parents and wives, remember what the Lord says in the Gospel, “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me.” “Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name’s sake shall receive an hundredfold and shall inherit everlasting life.” Let none of your possessions detain you, no solicitude for your family affairs . . .
Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. That land which as the Scripture says “floweth with milk and honey,” was given by God into the possession of the children of Israel Jerusalem is the navel of the world; the land is fruitful above others, like another paradise of delights . . . This royal city, therefore, situated at the center of the world, is now held captive by His enemies, and is in subjection to those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathens. She seeks therefore and desires to be liberated, and does not cease to implore you to come to her aid. From you especially she asks succor, because, as we have already said, God has conferred upon you above all nations great glory in arms. Accordingly undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the kingdom of heaven . . .
. . . It is the will of God (Deus Vult)! It is the will of God (Deus Vult)!
. . . Let this then be your war-cry in combats, because this word is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, let this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: It is the will of God! It is the will of God!
See the full text here. The longer version is filled with brutality that I did not want to include here.
- Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land (2010)
- Evangelisches Kirchenlexikon (1999) vol. 1
- Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, vol. 5.
- Curtis, Lang, and Peterson, The Top 100 Events in Christian History