The Crusades



THE Crusades were the culminating act of the medieval drama, and perhaps the most picturesque event in the history of Europe and the Near East. Now at last, after centuries of argument, the two great faiths, Christianity and Mohammedanism, resorted to man’s ultimate arbitrament—the supreme court of war. All medieval development, all the expansion of commerce and Christendom, all the fervor of religious belief, all the power of feudalism and glamor of chivalry came to a climax in a Two Hundred Years’ War for the soul of man and the profits of trade.

The first proximate cause of the Crusades* was the advance of the Seljuq Turks. The world had adjusted itself to Moslem control of the Near East; the Fatimids of Egypt had ruled mildly in Palestine; and barring some exceptions, the Christian sects there had enjoyed a wide liberty of worship. Al-Hakim, the mad caliph of Cairo, had destroyed the church of the Holy Sepulcher (1010), but the Mohammedans themselves had contributed substantially to its restoration.1 In 1047 the Moslem traveler Nasir-i-Khosru described it as “a most spacious building, capable of holding 8000 persons, and built with the utmost skill. Inside, the church is everywhere adorned with Byzantine brocade, worked in gold…. And they have portrayed Jesus—peace be upon Him!—riding upon an ass.”2 This was but one of many Christian churches in Jerusalem. Christian pilgrims had free access to the holy places; a pilgrimage to Palestine had long been a form of devotion or penance; everywhere in Europe one met “palmers” who, as a sign of pilgrimage accomplished, wore crossed palm leaves from Palestine; such men, said Piers Plowman, “had leave to lie all their lives thereafter.”3 But in 1070 the Turks took Jerusalem from the Fatimids, and pilgrims began to bring home accounts of oppression and desecration. An old story, not verifiable, relates that one wayfarer, Peter the Hermit, brought to Pope Urban II, from Simeon, Patriarch of Jerusalem, a letter detailing the persecution of Christians there, and imploring papal aid (1088).

The second proximate cause of the Crusades was the dangerous weakening of the Byzantine Empire. For seven centuries it had stood at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, holding back the armies of Asia and the hordes of the steppes. Now its internal discords, its disruptive heresies, its isolation from the West by the schism of 1054, left it too feeble to fulfill its historic task. While the Bulgars, Patzinaks, Cumans, and Russians assaulted its European gates, the Turks were dismembering its Asiatic provinces. In 1071 the Byzantine army was almost annihilated at Manzikert; the Seljuqs captured Edessa, Antioch (1085), Tarsus, even Nicaea, and gazed across the Bosporus at Constantinople itself. The Emperor Alexius I (1081–1118) saved a part of Asia Minor by signing a humiliating peace, but he had no military means of resisting further attack. If Constantinople should fall, all Eastern Europe would lie open to the Turks, and the victory of Tours (732) would be undone. Forgetting theological pride, Alexius sent delegates to Urban II and the Council of Piacenza, urging Latin Europe to help him drive back the Turks; it would be wiser, he argued, to fight the infidels on Asiatic soil than wait for them to swarm through the Balkans to the Western capitals.

The third proximate cause of the Crusades was the ambition of the Italian cities—Pisa, Genoa, Venice, Amalfi—to extend their rising commercial power. When the Normans captured Sicily from the Moslems (1060–91), and Christian arms reduced Moslem rule in Spain (1085f), the western Mediterranean was freed for Christian trade; the Italian cities, as ports of exit for domestic and transalpine products, grew rich and strong, and planned to end Moslem ascendancy in the eastern Mediterranean, and open the markets of the Near East to West European goods. We do not know how close these Italian merchants were to the ear of the Pope.

The final decision came from Urban himself. Other popes had entertained the idea. Gerbert, as Sylvester II, had appealed to Christendom to rescue Jerusalem, and an abortive expedition had landed in Syria (c. 1001). Gregory VII, amid his consuming strife with Henry IV, had exclaimed, “I would rather expose my life in delivering the holy places than reign over the universe.”4 That quarrel was still hot when Urban presided over the Council of Piacenza in March of 1095. He supported the plea of Alexius’ legates there, but counseled delay till a more widely representative assembly might consider a war against Islam. He was too well informed to picture victory as certain in so distant an enterprise; he doubtless foresaw that failure would seriously damage the prestige of Christianity and the Church. Probably he longed to channel the disorderly pugnacity of feudal barons and Norman buccaneers into a holy war to save Europe and Byzantium from Islam; he dreamed of bringing the Eastern Church again under papal rule, and visioned a mighty Christendom united under the theocracy of the popes, with Rome once more the capital of the world. It was a conception of the highest order of statesmanship.

From March to October of 1095 he toured northern Italy and southern France, sounding out leaders and ensuring support. At Clermont in Auvergne the historic council met; and though it was a cold November, thousands of people came from a hundred communities, pitched their tents in the open fields, gathered in a vast assemblage that no hall could hold, and throbbed with emotion as their fellow Frenchman Urban, raised on a platform in their midst, addressed to them in French the most influential speech in medieval history.

O race of Franks! race beloved and chosen by God! … From the confines of Jerusalem and from Constantinople a grievous report has gone forth that an accursed race, wholly alienated from God, has violently invaded the lands of these Christians, and has depopulated them by pillage and fire. They have led away a part of the captives into their own country, and a part they have killed by cruel tortures. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanliness. The kingdom of the Greeks is now dismembered by them, and has been deprived of territory so vast in extent that it could not be traversed in two months’ time.

On whom, then, rests the labor of avenging these wrongs, and of recovering this territory, if not upon you—you upon whom, above all others, God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great bravery, and strength to humble the heads of those who resist you? Let the deeds of your ancestors encourage you—the glory and grandeur of Charlemagne and your other monarchs. Let the Holy Sepulcher of Our Lord and Saviour, now held by unclean nations, arouse you, and the holy places that are now stained with pollution…. Let none of your possessions keep you back, nor anxiety for your family affairs. For this land which you now inhabit, shut in on all sides by the sea and the mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large population; it scarcely furnishes food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder and devour one another, that you wage wars, and that many among you perish in civil strife.

Let hatred, therefore, depart from among you; let your quarrels end. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from a wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. Jerusalem is a land fruitful above all others, a paradise of delights. That royal city, situated at the center of the earth, implores you to come to her aid. Undertake this journey eagerly for the remission of your sins, and be assured of the reward of imperishable glory in the Kingdom of Heaven.5

Through the crowd an excited exclamation rose: Dieu li volt—“God wills it!” Urban took it up, and called upon them to make it their battle cry. He bade those who undertook the crusade to wear a cross upon brow or breast. “At once,” says William of Malmesbury, “some of the nobility, falling down at the knees of the Pope, consecrated themselves and their property to the service of God.”6 Thousands of the commonalty pledged themselves likewise; monks and hermits left their retreats to become in no metaphysical sense soldiers of Christ. The energetic Pope passed to other cities—Tours, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Montpellier, Nîmes … and for nine months preached the crusade. When he reached Rome after two years’ absence, he was enthusiastically acclaimed by the least pious city in Christendom. He assumed, with no serious opposition, the authority to release Crusaders from commitments hindering the crusade; he freed the serf and the vassal, for the duration of the war, from fealty to their lord; he conferred upon all Crusaders the privilege of being tried by ecclesiastical instead of manorial courts, and guaranteed them, during their absence, the episcopal protection of their property; he commanded—though he could not quite enforce—a truce to all wars of Christians against Christians; he established a new principle of obedience above the code of feudal loyalty. Now, more than ever, Europe was made one. Urban found himself the accepted master, at least in theory, of Europe’s kings. All Christendom was moved as never before as it feverishly prepared for the holy war.

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