Post-classical history




This nineteenth-century painting of the return home of an elderly crusader is symbolic of the end of the crusading era, which fell victim to the unwillingness of Europeans to continue to pay taxes in support of the crusader kingdom.
© Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

SO LONG AS THE COSTS of the Crusades were born by the crusaders and their families, there were few who objected to the repeated efforts to free and preserve the Holy Land. But when kings began to lead, the expense of crusading soon was being imposed on everyone, including the clergy and the religious orders, in the form of crusader taxes. Grumbling began at once. The grumbling grew increasingly louder when bloody “crusades” began against “heretics” in Europe: thousands of Cathars, Waldensians, Beghards, and Beguines were condemned by the Church and killed in battle or hunted down and massacred. In the midst of all this, a medieval version of an antiwar movement eventually prevailed; after two centuries of support, the kingdoms in the Holy Land were abandoned.


Having been the first king to lead a Crusade, Louis VII of France was the first, in 1146, to impose a tax to fund his venture to the Holy Land. This tax seems to have been levied only on the clergy, especially the monastic orders; in any case, the abbot of Ferrières was the first to complain that the tax was unfair and too severe. His was hardly a lone voice. The abbot of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire protested that he would need to melt down some sacred silver and gold altar furnishings in order to raise the sum demanded.1 The abbot of Mont-Saint-Michel not only complained bitterly that the tax involved “the spoliation” of the church, but “ascribed the failure of the expedition to a divine judgment.”2 It is unknown how much was raised by Louis’s tax, but it was not enough. He also borrowed substantial sums and wrote several times to his head tax collector asking for advances and loans.

Then King Henry II of England and King Philip Augustus of France imposed a far heavier tax in 1166, and this time on the laity as well as the clergy. The rate in England was placed at two pence of each pound sterling of income for the first year, and one penny in each of the next four years. Equivalent rates were charged in France. This may have been the first time in Europe that a tax was imposed on income rather than on property.3 This tax seems to have aroused little antagonism. But that was not the case in 1188, when another income tax was imposed in England and France to support what came to be the Third Crusade. Hence, this tax was known as the Saladin Tithe, and it stirred up intense anger.

The Saladin Tithe was first initiated by Henry II of England and embraced by Philip Augustus. It required a payment of 10 percent (a tithe) on all revenues and movable properties by everyone who was not going to go crusading. What really distressed the king’s subjects was that prior taxes had been left to conscience: a person was assumed to have paid the correct amount. This time a Templar and a Hospitaller were appointed as collectors in each parish, joined by a priest and two parishioners. This collection team was empowered to investigate suspicious cases and to imprison offenders until they paid up.4 Many ecclesiastics predicted that the Crusade would come to a bad end because of this abusive taxation. One French troubadour even sang of “tyrants who have taken up the cross so they may tax clerks, citizens, and soldiers…more have taken the cross out of greed than faith.”5

On July 6, 1189, Henry II died and was succeeded by his son Richard the Lionhearted. Because of the Saladin Tithe, Richard inherited a bursting treasury, containing at least one hundred thousand marks despite the fact that just before his death Henry had given thirty thousand marks to the Templars and Hospitallers to spend on the defense of Tyre.6 Even though Richard turned out to be a prodigious spender, he always had the money to spend.

At the close of the twelfth century the tax burden shifted from the crowns to the papacy: in 1199 Innocent III imposed a tax of 2.5 percent a year on all clerical incomes to support the Fourth Crusade. This led to many incidents of open rebellion and nonpayment.

Crusade taxes peaked during the reign of Saint Louis. It has been calculated that from 1247 to 1257, Louis spent 1.5 million livres on crusading, or more than six times his royal revenues. The difference was made up by “gifts” and special taxes. As for “gifts,” in 1248, eighty-two towns in northern France were ordered to “give” large sums “to help the overseas journey.”7 They gave about 275,000 livres. In addition, huge sums came from taxes on the churches: the “French clergy offered a tenth over five years,” which may have added up to almost a million livres.8 Even so, many of the leading nobles paid their own way as well as that of their contingents; crusading was hugely expensive.


From the start, some Christian theologians had condemned the doctrine that crusading earned forgiveness for sins and was the moral equivalent of taking monastic vows. These criticisms increased as the Crusades failed to accomplish their goals, encouraging claims that God did not sanction these wars. Worse yet, “many Christians began to blaspheme,”9 claiming that God was favoring the Muslims. A well-known troubadour asked, “God, why did you bring this misfortune upon our French king…It is with good reason that we cease to believe in God and worship Muhammad.”10 Even more damaging was a poem by a Knight Templar, written in despair after the massacre or enslavement of the knights at Arsuf by Baibars:

My heart is so full of grief that it would take little more to make me kill myself at once or tear off this cross which I took in honor of Him who was crucified. For neither cross nor my faith protects and guides against the cursed Turks. Rather it seems, as anyone can see, that to our hurt God wishes to protect them…Thus he is mad who seeks to fight the Turks since Jesus Christ does not deny them anything.11

To counter such objections, leading churchmen argued that God permitted these defeats because of the sins of the crusaders.12 The crusaders themselves often adopted this explanation and staged many elaborate displays of contrition; recall the three-day fast and then the barefoot march around the walls of Jerusalem in 1099. Of course, contrition had its limits, and the whores were never banished from the encampments.13 In any event, claims that God did not support the Crusades grew increasingly loud and popular—especially among those paying the most in taxes.

Finally, when the Church held a council at Lyon in 1274, the pope asked the esteemed Humbert of Romans, Master General of the Dominican order, to report on current opposition to crusading. It was a masterful summing-up.

Humbert began by noting how the Muslims had provoked the Crusades. For more than six hundred years they had been attacking Christendom. Once the whole of North Africa had been a flourishing Christian region; now only one Christian bishopric remained, in Morocco. They had invaded Spain, Sicily, and Italy. Worst of all, they had taken and profaned the Holy Land. Without question the Crusades were a Christian duty. Why then did so many shirk from going?

Some failed to go because they were sunk into sin and self-indulgence. More failed to go because they were afraid. And afraid not merely of combat: many otherwise brave knights were terrified of going to sea. (It was common knowledge that many battle-hardened veterans backed out of their vow to take the cross when it came time to board a ship.) Others failed to go because they were too concerned about their own affairs. Still others because of family obligations; women had often been very vocal opponents of crusading, albeit some had ridden east with their husbands, sons, and lovers.

But the truly important reason that an increasing number would not go crusading was the attacks being heaped on it by so many critics. Some of these were pacifists who held it to be a sin to kill anyone. Some objected that it made more sense to leave the Muslims in peace unless they invaded Europe: “[w]hen we conquer and kill them we send them to hell, which is contrary to Christian charity.”14 Others condemned the Crusades for wasting the lives and energy of the best and brightest. Many asked how much more useful Louis IX could have been had he remained in France and lived to an old age. Some of the most persuasive critics attacked crusading as futile: there were too many Muslims, and Palestine was too far away. And always it came back to taxes. Crusading was too expensive.

It also was becoming too disruptive. Some of the most vociferous critics of crusading were equally vociferous in criticizing the Catholic Church on other grounds as well. The Cathars (Albigensians) condemned all killing, including capital punishment, and aimed specific condemnations against the Crusades. The Waldensians likewise opposed killing and extended this to condemnations of all crusading. These views probably helped kindle opposition to both groups, but the launching of military attacks on both—these also justified as “Crusades” by the Church—played a far more important role in generating opposition to all crusading. The campaigns against the Cathars and the Waldensians were brutal wars of extermination that devastated parts of Europe, damaged the economy, and led to great bitterness in many European communities.

The result of all these factors was that after Edward I sailed back to England in 1272, no more large crusading groups ever came to the Holy Land—although several very small contingents did appear, including one led by Countess Alice of Blois in 1287 and another under Odo of Grandson in 1290.


In February 1289 Saif al-Din Qalawun (or Kalavun), the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, marched a huge army north and laid siege to Tripoli, one of the five remaining crusader ports in the Holy Land. When warned by the Templars that the Egyptians were coming, at first no one in Tripoli believed it. And, confident of the immense strength of their fortifications, they made no special preparations until the enemy was literally at the gates. Much to their surprise, not only was the Muslim army much larger than anyone in Tripoli had thought possible; this Muslim force brought immense siege engines able to smash the city’s walls. As the bombardment ensued, members of the Venetian merchant community within Tripoli decided that the city could not be held and sailed away with their most precious possessions. This alarmed the Genoese merchants, and so they, too, scrambled aboard their ships and left. This threw the city into disorder just as the Muslims launched a general assault on the breaches in the walls. As hordes of Egyptian troopers swarmed into the city, some Christians were able to flee to the last boats in the harbor. As for the rest, the men were slaughtered, and the women and children were marched away to the slave markets. Then “Qalawun had the city razed to the ground, lest the Franks, with their command of the sea, might try to recapture it.”15 He also founded new Tripoli a few miles inland, where it could not be reached by sea.

That left Acre, Tyre, Beirut, and Haifa.

On his deathbed, Qalawun had his son and heir, al-Ashraf, swear he would conquer Acre. So in April 1291, al-Ashraf arrived at Acre with an even larger army than his father had marched to Tripoli and with even more powerful siege machines. The defenders fought bravely and with great skill; several times they sallied out the gates and attacked the Muslim camp. But all the while their fortifications were being reduced to rubble by the huge stones hurled by the siege engines, although supplies continued to arrive by sea from Cyprus and some civilians were evacuated on the return voyages. In May, a month after the siege began, reinforcements consisting of one hundred mounted knights and two thousand infantry came from Cyprus. But they were too few.

Soon the battle was being fought in the streets, and many civilians were crowding aboard rowboats to reach the galleys out in the harbor. But most people were unable to leave, and “[s]oon the Moslem soldiers penetrated right through the city, slaying everyone, old men, women and children alike.”16 By May 8, all of Acre was in Muslim hands except for the castle of the Templars, which jutted out into the sea. Boats from Cyprus continued to board refugees from the castle while the Templars, joined by other surviving fighting men, held the walls. At this point al-Ashraf offered favorable terms of surrender, the Templars accepted, and a contingent of Mamluks was admitted to supervise the handover. Unfortunately, they got out of hand. As the Muslim chronicler Abu’l-Mahasin admitted, the Mamluk contingent “began to pillage and to lay hands on the women and children.”17 Furious, the Templars killed them all and got ready to fight on. The next day, fully aware of what had gone wrong, al-Ashraf offered the same favorable terms once again. The commander of the Templars and some companions accepted a safe-conduct to arrange the surrender, but when they reached the sultan’s tent they were seized and beheaded. Seeing that from the walls, the remaining Templars decided to fight to the death. And they did.

Less than a month later this huge Muslim army arrived at Tyre. The garrison was far too small to attempt a defense and sailed away to Cyprus without a fight. Next, the Muslims marched to Beirut. Here, too, resistance was beyond the means of the garrison, and they, too, sailed to Cyprus. Haifa also fell without opposition; the monks on Mount Carmel were slaughtered and their monasteries burned. The last Christian enclave was now the Templars’ fortress island of Ruad, two miles off the coast. The Templars held out there until 1303, leaving then only because of the suppression of their order by the king of France and the pope. After the fall of Acre, the Hospitallers gathered on Cyprus and then, in 1310, seized the island of Rhodes from the Byzantines. There they built a superior navy and played an important role in defending Western shipping in the East.

And so it ended. It should be kept in mind that the kingdoms had survived, at least along the coast, for nearly as long as the United States has been a nation.


Karen Armstrong is one of the many who would have us believe that the Crusades are “one of the direct causes of the conflict in the Middle East today.”18 That may be so, but not because the Muslim world has been harboring bitterness over the Crusades for the past many centuries. As Jonathan Riley-Smith explained: “One often reads that Muslims have inherited from their medieval ancestors bitter memories of the violence of the crusaders. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before the end of the nineteenth century Muslims had not shown much interest in the crusades…[looking] back on [them] with indifference and complacency.”19 Even at the time they took place, Muslim chroniclers paid very little attention to the Crusades, regarding them as invasions by “a primitive, unlearned, impoverished, and un-Muslim people, about whom Muslim rulers and scholars knew and cared little.”20 Moreover, most Arabs dismissed the Crusades as having been attacks upon the hated Turks, and therefore of little interest.21 Indeed, in the account written by Ibn Zafir at the end of the twelfth century, it was said that it was better that the Franks occupied the kingdom of Jerusalem as this prevented “the spread of the influence of the Turks to the lands of Egypt.”22

Muslim interest in the Crusades seems to have begun in the nineteenth century, when the term itself23 was introduced by Christian Arabs who translated French histories into Arabic—for it was in the West that the Crusades first came back into vogue during the nineteenth century. In Europe and the United States “the romance of the crusades and crusading” became a very popular literary theme, as in the many popular novels of Sir Walter Scott.24 Not surprisingly, this development required that, at least in Britain and America, the Crusades be “de-Catholicized.”25 In part this was done by emphasizing the conflict between the Knights Templars and the pope, transforming the former into an order of valiant anti-Catholic heroes. In addition, there developed a strong linkage between the European imperial impulse and the romantic imagery of the Crusades “to such an extent that, by World War One, war campaigns and war heroes were regularly lauded as crusaders in the popular press, from the pulpit, and in the official propaganda of the British war machine.”26

Meanwhile in the East, the Ottoman Empire was fully revealed as “the sick man of Europe,” a decrepit relic unable to produce any of the arms needed for its defense, which highlighted the general backwardness of Islamic culture and prompted “seething anger”27 against the West among Muslim intellectuals, eventually leading them to focus on the Crusades.

Thus, current Muslim memories and anger about the Crusades are a twentieth-century creation, 28 prompted in part by “post-World War I British and French imperialism and the post-World War II creation of the state of Israel.”29 It was the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire to rule with absolute authority, Abdülhamimaged II (r. 1876–1909), who began to refer to European Crusades. This prompted the first Muslim history of the Crusades, published in 1899. In the introduction, its author, Sayyid Ali al-Hariri, noted: “The sovereigns of Europe nowadays attack our Sublime Empire in a manner bearing great resemblance to the deeds of those people in bygone times [the crusaders]. Our most glorious sultan, Abdulhamid II, has rightly remarked that Europe is now carrying out a Crusade against us.”30

This theme was eagerly picked up by Muslim nationalists. “Only Muslim unity could oppose these new crusades, some argued, and the crusading threat became an important theme in the writings of the pan-Islamic movement”31 Even within the context of Muslim weakness in the face the modern West, Islamic triumphalism flourished; many proposed that through the Crusades the “savage West…benefited by absorbing [Islam’s] civilized values.” As for crusader effects on Islam, “how could Islam benefit from contacts established with an inferior, backward civilization?”32

Eventually, the image of the brutal, colonizing crusader proved to have such polemical power that it drowned out nearly everything else in the ideological lexicon of Muslim antagonism toward the West—except, of course, for Israel and paranoid tales about the worldwide Jewish conspiracy.


The thrust of the preceding chapters can be summarized very briefly. The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God’s battalions.

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