An often debated topic in Church History is the legitimacy of the Crusades. As with other events that occurred under the leadership of the papacy, the Crusades have been ardently debated from both sides of the argument. The most important question regarding their accomplishment, and that of any activity within the history of the Church, is whether or not they advanced the cause of Christ. Were the Crusades ordained by God as some sort of Holy War, or were they merely the acts of wicked men attempting to advance their own agenda?
The First Crusade, unlike later crusades, was considered a great success for the Church. Following the conquest of Jerusalem by the Seljuk Turks in 1070, as well as years of cruelties toward Christians, the threat toward Constantinople and Eastern Christendom motivated a response from Pope Urban II in 1095. Urban responded with a sermon to a convocation at Clermont in southern France, where church dignitaries as well as the common people heard his declarations explained. He told of the plundering, desecration of Churches, rape of Christian women, and torture and murder of Christian men. With the enthusiastic response of the people, the First Crusade soon set out from Constantinople following recruitment of crusaders. “By 1098 both Edessa and Antioch had fallen to the crusaders, and the following year Jerusalem itself followed and was put under the Christian rule of Godfrey of Bouillon.” While it took over two decades to solicit a response from the Western Empire to the needs of Byzantium, it can be said that the success of the First Crusade appealed to the unified religious zeal of medieval Europe. Of course, some of the incentives offered by the papacy by participation were “immunity from taxes and debt payment, protection of crusaders’ property and families, and especially the indulgence, which guaranteed the crusader’s entry into heaven and reduced or abolished his time in purgatory.” It is no wonder that this combination of offenses and benefits motivated a united Christian empire to march for the Holy Land and establish their short-lived, yet Christian, states (the Outremer).
With the new Outremer and successful capture of the Holy Land by the crusaders, two new religious orders were created for defense. These were the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar. In spite of their efforts, Edessa again fell to the Muslims in 1144. Following this, the Second Crusade was formed in 1147 by the order of Pope Eugene III and popularized by Bernard of Clairvaux. Led by King Louis VII of France and Conrad III, Holy Roman Emperor, this crusade was marked by several disappointments which climaxed at Damascus, where the crusaders were ambushed and unable to take the city. Led by two kings and preached by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Second Crusade failed dramatically, which may be why it has never received much attention.
Following the Second Crusade, the rise of an important Kurdish general named Saladin would cause further failure for the future of crusaders. It was the skillful leadership of Saladin which first repelled the forces of Jerusalem from Egypt, overthrew the Fatimids to establish the new Ayyubid dynasty, and travelled to the Outremer and conquered Jerusalem in 1187. In addition to his military prowess, Saladin is considered “one of the few historical Muslims who enjoys a favorable image in the West, [but] that does not mean he is understood. He may have been a noble soul in comparison with his contemporaries, but he was also a man of his era.” Saladin’s reputation was based upon his merciful dealings with conquered enemies, endorsing peace and rights which his Muslim predecessors had not. While this may be true, Saladin was not always forgiving and lenient toward his enemies (e.g. Reynald of Chatillon).
In spite of the rise of this “good infidel,” the Third Crusade was launched by Pope Gregory VIII in 1189. This time Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman emperor, came along, as well as King Philip II of France and King Richard I of England. With such personalities, the Third Crusade “has always attracted interest, for it pitted Richard the Lionheart against Saladin in a fight to the finish for Jerusalem itself.”5 These Kings, however, were no more successful than their predecessors from the Second Crusade and their efforts were a dismal failure as well. Oddly enough, Barbarossa drowned along the way.
Fortunately for these men, Saladin remained true to the good side of his character and made peace with those involved in the Third Crusade. Unlike Chatillon, who attacked Muslims making their annual hajj to Mecca and Medina, Saladin guaranteed that Christians who made similar pilgrimages to Jerusalem would be safe.7
The last crusade worth mention is the Fourth Crusade. Just as the first and third crusades, the purpose of this crusade was to again attempt to recapture Jerusalem, which had been in Muslim hands for 11 years. Likely the oddest of all, the Fourth Crusade was ordered by Pope Innocent III in 1198. As relations with the Byzantine Empire were strained during this time because of the masses of crusaders moving across their land, the decision was made to sail to the Holy Land. The crusade had formed around a few powerful barons, but the problem with the idea proposed was that these barons had no boats. In 1201, six men were sent to Venice to purchase boats, and ended up with the Venetians joining the Crusade themselves with a fleet of war galleys. Additionally, the Venetians “agreed to provide transportation and provisions for the French Crusaders and their horses for one year.”5 Because many of the crusaders represented various military groups, and they were not under the oath of the barons who had made arrangement with the Venetians, nearly 2/3 less than the contracted amount of individuals showed up, as they rather took advantage of cheaper or more convenient transportation from various ports. The Venetians agreed to loan the money to the crusaders if they should help subdue Zara. As Zara was not only a Catholic city, but also under the rule of the king of Hungary who had taken the crusader’s vow, this land was under the protection of the church. However, the crusader’s had agreed to assist the Venetians and therefore, the whole Fourth Crusade was excommunicated!5
By 1203, the crusaders were ready to sail, although there were only a few months left on lease for the fleet and their provisions had been eaten. Alexius Angelus, the son of Emperor Isaac II Angelus, convinced the crusaders to help him overthrow his uncle,
Alexius III Angelus. He promised many riches and thousands of troops in return for this liberation. The crusaders attacked Constantinople and restored Alexius to the throne. Alexius paid half what he promised and died in a coup that winter. The crusaders attacked the city again, captured and sacked it. In 1204, “Baldwin of Flanders was elected the first emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. Thus ended the Fourth Crusade, having never reached Jerusalem.”5
Considering the events of the crusades and their motivating factors, we return to the question of whether they advanced the cause of Christ. One commentator believes that, “the crusades were rooted in the competitive culture of Western aristocracy. Noble adventurism and the greed for land were driving dynamics, not only of the expansion into the fringes of the Catholic core, but also of the crusades to the Holy Land…the crusades were essentially an outlet for the buccaneering attitudes of the nobility. Their war-like spirit was applied by the pope, to establish papal leadership in Christendom. In the end, these papal attempts failed, because in the later Middle Ages, the aristocracy was drawn into the service of the crown, leaving the pope as one power among many.” On the other hand, it has been said that, “[T]he internal personal decision to follow the cross, to inflict harm on others at great personal risk, at the cost of enormous privations, at the service of a consuming cause, cannot be explained, excused or dismissed either as virtue or sin. Rather, its very contradictions spelt its humanity."
So then, with varying commentaries on the events of the crusades, what are we to believe about them? It is my opinion that the First Crusade with its successes had the most admirable motivations. While it is true that brutality and even cannibalism occurred during this crusade,2 it seems that the unity of Eastern and Western Christianity as well as a religious zeal to remove the Muslims from lands not promised them by God was done with good intentions. However, with the ensuing power struggle and continued abuses, whether condemned by the Church or not, of the following crusades, it seems as though personal rather than Spiritual interests were at heart.
We see this culminate in the Fourth Crusade with the sack of Constantinople. While all the crusades may be argued to represent a Christian worldview, at least in the context of their mission, I do not believe that even the first can be argued to advance the cause of Christ. As with the Apostles, believers are not promised blessing in this life so much as suffering. Additionally, the proclamation of the Gospel is the most important aspect of the Christian faith, and it does not seem evident that this was a major concern of the crusades. Therefore, while the purpose of the crusades, particularly the first, may have been noble, they overall appear to be a dismal failure to the cause of Christ.
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Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987.
Hill, Jonathan. Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity. Zondervan: Grand
Madden, Thomas F. 2005. Crusaders and Historians. First Things, no. 154: 26-31. ATLA
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Karabell, Zachary. Peace Be upon You. Vintage Books: New York, 2007.
Janse, Antheun. 2007. The Crusades and the Expansion of Catholic Christendom, 1000-
1714. Church History and Religious Culture 87, no. 3: 373-374. ATLA Religion
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Andrea, Alfred J. 2007. God's War: A New History of the Crusades. Christianity Today
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