The Crusades: War in the Holy Land

By Sir Were

The Crusades was a dark time in the history of Europe, a two-hundred year long period of constant battle and war. Yet even such a desolate time was not without its benefits. Political, scientific, and military advances were made in great jumps. But it is no great exaggeration when it is said, that the Crusades killed more people than World War 2.

The immediate cause of the crusades was Alexius I’s, the pope of Byzantine, appeal to Pope Urban II, the pope of Rome, for mercenaries to help him resist Muslim advances into territory of the Byzantine Empire. Earlier in 1071, at the Battle of Manzikert, the Byzantine Empire had been defeated, and this defeat led to the loss of all but the coastlands of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Although the East-West Schism was already beginning to brew between the Catholic Western church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, Alexius I hoped for a positive response. However, the response was much larger, and less helpful, than he had desired. The Pope had called for a large invasion force to not merely defend the Byzantine Empire, but also to retake Jerusalem, but he received a crowd of unorganized, but rash and hot-heated civilians, intent on winning fame and glory in the holy land.

Later that year, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II again called upon all Christians to join a war against the Turks, promising those who died in the endeavor immediate remission of their sins. This encouraged all kinds of men and even women in disguise to join the army. The crusader armies managed to defeat two substantial Turkish forces at Dorylaeum and at Antioch, finally marching to Jerusalem with only a fraction of their original forces. In 1099, they took Jerusalem by assault and massacred the population. As a result of the First Crusade, several small Crusader states were created, notably the Kingdom of Jerusalem. But the Turkish Empire had only been splintered, not destroyed.

After a period of relative peace in which Christians and Muslims co-existed in the Holy Land, the natives – under the new leader of Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt – suddenly broke the truce and captured the town of Edessa. A new crusade was called for by various preachers and officials, whose requests were met in the form of French and German armies, under the Kings Louis VII and Conrad III respectively, marching to Jerusalem in 1147. However, they failed to accomplish any major successes, and indeed endangered the survival of the Crusader states with a strategically foolish attack on Damascus. By 1150, both leaders had returned to their countries without any result.

In 1187, Saladin, continued his counterattack and recaptured Jerusalem. Pope Gregory VIII called for yet another crusade, which was led by several of Europe’s most important leaders: Philip II of France, Richard I of England and Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick drowned in Cilicia in 1190, leaving an unstable alliance between the English and the French. Philip left in 1191, after the Crusaders had recaptured Acre from the Muslims. The crusader army headed down the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. They defeated the Muslims near Arsuf and were in sight of Jerusalem. However, the inability of the crusaders to thrive in the locale because of inadequate food and water resulted in an empty victory. Richard left the following year after establishing a truce with Saladin.On Richard’s way home, his ship was wrecked and he ended up in Austria, where his enemy, Duke Leopold, captured him. The Duke delivered Richard to Emperor Henry VI, who held the King for ransom. By 1197, Henry felt ready for a crusade, but he died in the same year of malaria. Richard I died during fighting in Europe and never returned to the Holy Land. The Third Crusade is sometimes referred to as the Kings’ Crusade and is certainly the most famous, being renowned for the strong references to it in various tales of Robin Hood.

Over the next eighty years there were seven other crusades, all of less importance and remarkableness. Western and Eastern historiography present variously different views on the crusades, in large part because “crusade” invokes dramatically opposed sets of associations – “crusade” as a valiant struggle for a supreme cause, and “crusade” as a byword for barbarism and aggression. This contrasting view is not recent since Christians have in the past struggled with the tension of military activity and teachings of Christ to “love one’s enemies” and to “turn the other cheek”. For these reasons, the crusades have been controversial even among contemporaries. Western sources speak of heroism, faith and honor (emphasized in chivalric romance), but also of acts of brutality. Islamic and Orthodox Christian chroniclers tell stories of barbarian savagery and brutality. Likewise, some modern historians in the west express moral outrage – for example Steven Runciman, the leading western historian of the crusades for much of the 20th century, ended his history with a resounding condemnation:
“High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed. The Holy War was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God.”

This long long period of time reached a closing point early in the 14th century. After hundreds of years, the crusades were finished. But even though they had cost the deaths of thousands of men and women, great advances were made, as they are in every great war. The Crusades had an enormous influence on the European Middle Ages politics, sciences, and military. At times, much of the continent was united under a powerful Papacy, but by the 14th century, the development of centralized bureaucracies was well on its way in France, England, and several other large regions, partly because of the dominance of the church at the beginning of the crusading era. Although Europe had been exposed to Islamic culture for centuries through contacts in Iberian Peninsula and Sicily, much knowledge in areas such as science, medicine, and architecture was transferred from the Islamic to the western world during the crusade era. The military experiences of the crusades also had their effects in Europe; for example, European castles became massive stone structures as they were in the east, rather than smaller wooden buildings as they had typically been in the past. And so the crusades did indeed have a positive impact on Europe, despite all the sorrows and bloodshed that went hand in hand. And the wars passed away, and a new age began. An age of science and art, and of exploration.